Thailand is a world-famous destination for backpackers, surfers, ecotourists, foodies, and anyone interested in surveying the colorful tangle of cultures composing Southeast Asia. Bangkok—the capital and largest city by many degrees—is an immersive, 24-hour-a-day adventure. Pay your respects to its venerable monuments, such as the Grand Palace, Wat Arun, the Vimanmek Mansion, and the Golden Buddha, and then dive into everyday Thai society along nonstop thoroughfares such as Khaosan Road. The northern city of Chiang Mai provides its own incredible atmosphere and a whole host of delights, including hundreds of Buddhist shrines. Now exported all around the world, Thai food—defined by, among many other attributes, a deft use of complex spices—finds perhaps its greatest expression in the street-market stalls of the cities. The beaches of Thailand are hailed all around the world for their tropical beauty and, in places, for their vivacious nightlife. Some of the finest are found in Phuket, an island province in the Andaman Sea.
A must see when visiting the country is a performance of Thai classical dance which originated in the royal courts and can be experienced at various cultural centers and other venues throughout the country. The highly stylized choreography focuses on hand movements and the artists train rigorously for several years to learn the movements. The ornate costumes add to the special atmosphere of a performance.
Thailand is renowned for its weaving tradition. For centuries village women have used hand looms to produce magnificent Thai silk. Each region can be identified by its own technique and designs and most people who visit Thailand seem to leave with at least one example of this Thai art.
Like many countries, Thais enjoy soccer. The country also has sports which are unique to it. Muai Thai is a unique style of boxing in which opponents use elbows, bare feet, knees and gloved fists to compete. Takraw is another uniquely Thai sport played with a net and ball similar to volleyball except players can only touch the ball with their head, feet or knees, not hands. Kite flying while not unique to Thailand is a popular tradition which dates back more than 700 years. Popular with Thai kings it became a national sport by the beginning of the 20th century. Late February, March and April are when most of the official competitions are held, though visitors may see Thais practicing whenever the wind conditions are ideal.
Thai food has become increasingly popular around the world, but is best enjoyed in the country of origin. Thai recipes are based on a blending of the five basic flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and hot. Although hot and spicy may appear to be the predominant flavor, Thai cooks make a concentrated effort to balance the many different flavors of any dish. Soup, eaten with many meals helps balance the hotter dishes as does the ingredient staple, rice. Unlike some of their Asian neighbors Thais don’t tend to use chopsticks unless they are enjoying a noodle dish. The many small food stalls visitors pass everywhere exist due to the fact that the Thai people tend to snack all day long.
There are four main types of Thai regional cooking. The northern cuisine has been influenced by its proximity to other countries; sticky rice from Laos and pork and turmeric dishes from Myanmar. Northeast cuisine is often flavored with fermented fish sauce and its most well-known regional specialty is laab, a dish of minced meat, cilantro and mint, fish sauce, lime juice, chilies and sticky rice. In the central region curries dominate though noodle dishes from the local Chinese community have also found their way into the local diet. In the south the food has been affected by the cultures of China, Malaysia and Pakistan. Massaman curry is a curry of the Indian style as opposed to the traditional Thai curries of the central region. Due to the coastline in the south, seafood is a large part of many dishes in this area.
Located in Southeast Asia, Thailand is on the Gulf of Thailand, an arm of the South China Sea. Thailand shares its borders with Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Malaysia. The geography of the country organically divides it into four regions. The south encompasses the long coastline, the central plains contain vast rice fields, the northeast includes semi-arid farmland and the far north encompasses mountains and forest land.
Bangkok is the exciting capital of the country where visitors are struck by how the city engages all of the five senses at once. The wide range of hotels, shopping malls filled with the finest of the East and the West, the beautiful temples and the thrilling nightlife all work to turn many guests into repeat visitors to the country.
Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand and only a short flight from Bangkok. The Night Bazaar full of Thai handicrafts is a favorite stop on most travelers’ itineraries. Just outside the city many visitors choose to explore the nearby jungles and visit hill tribes who have kept much of their traditional lifestyle.
Many visitors take a breather from the hustle of Thailand’s largest cities at the popular beach destination of Phuket, known as the ‘Pearl of the Andaman’ where the pace reflects island time. Hua Hin is another seaside resort town that was long favored by the Thai royal family as well as golf enthusiasts who enjoy the area’s excellent golf courses. The island destination of Koh Samui is known for both for its relaxing day time atmosphere and exciting nightlife.
Most visited cities: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Hua Hin, Koh Samui
The early Thai people were nomads. Eventually they evolved into agricultural communities and then into small principalities. By the mid-14th century a unified kingdom was established known as Siam.
Modernization occurred under the rule of King Mongkut who took the throne in 1851. He established diplomatic relations with European nations, which likely was the reason that unlike other countries in Southeast Asia, Siam was never taken over by a European power. In addition to his diplomatic efforts, Mongkut made trade easier by loosening restrictions and established a school system. His son and grandson carried on his legacy of reform by abolishing slavery, restructuring the legal code, and making education compulsory. However not all of the country was supportive of these reformist kings. In 1912 Thai military officers staged a coup, which while unsuccessful in unseating the monarch, became the first in a series of attempts throughout modern Thai history. Siam was on the side of the Allies in WWI. A coup in 1932 led to the formation of a constitutional monarchy and in 1939 the country’s English name was formally changed from Siam to Thailand. The country was under military rule for almost sixty years until a democratic elected system of government was established.
With the Japanese invasion during WWII, the interim Thai military government at the time sided with Japan and declared war against the U.S. However, the Thai ambassador to the U.S. refused to deliver the declaration of war. Although a constitutional monarchy, the country was really ruled for decades by Thai military leaders and during subsequent years multiple coups occurred and the constitution was abolished and reestablished many times. Thailand supported the U.S. during the Vietnam War.
Although the country has been through many changes in the past century, King Bhumibol, one of the longest reigning monarchs, is beloved by the Thai people and this country of ancient traditions and modern amenities and beautiful scenery increasingly attracts visitors lured by the friendliness of its people.