Most tourists understand Thailand through a very narrow lens. To many, it is a place with beautiful scenery, ornate architecture, and friendly people. However, the history of Thailand extends much further than this two-dimensional image of the country.
This article will highlight the most fascinating aspects of Thai culture and history. We’ll paint an accurate (and unbiased) picture of the current political landscape. More than anything, we’ll give you the information you need to be the intellectual life of the party at Khao San Road.
So how did Thailand become such a famous tourist destination? What were the origins of the country? What are the social rules and norms of Thailand? We’ll cover all your potential questions by the end of this article.
Thailand is surrounded by other countries that have experienced intense periods of war that have ravished the country, their population, and the potential for explosive wealth. Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia have all dealt with atrocities to fight for their independence. Each country that bordered Thailand was at one point colonized by a European country.
Thailand, however, is the only Southeast Asian country that was never ruled or colonized by a European power. Thailand’s name literally translates to “Land of the Free” – a name they have worn with pride. However, this name is relatively new and recent. Prior to the 1950s, Thailand was actually known as Siam.
Siam sat in the middle of India/Myanmar and Laos/Cambodia/Vietnam. The British empire had colonial control of the countries due West of Siam. The French empire had colonial control over the countries due East of Siam. Both countries were intensely competitive and viewed their Southeastern Asian colonial dominance with a hint of rivalry. The two countries recognized that if their colonies were too close, they could spark a war. Therefore, Thailand was a neutral ground that neither truly attempted to claim.
The 4th and 5th King of Thailand recognized the importance of their unique geographic location. More importantly, they understood diplomacy. The country intentionally signed treaties with both empires to ensure they held onto their independence. They had to sacrifice large swaths of land in order to do so, but they considered that a sunk cost at the time to retain the more important independence.
The majority of Thai people are Buddhist. As you visit various temples, please be aware that these beautiful structures are not tourist attractions. Rather, these religious buildings are a place where Thai people can pray, hope, mourn, and celebrate. Act accordingly.
At one point in Thailand, becoming a monk was a mandatory practice for all young men in the country. Every young boy in Thailand was required to experience life through the lens of a monk before they became adults. Most young men were only Buddhist monks for a short time – normally less than a few months.
However, those who lived with large families in rural provinces were often monks for a much longer period of time. Some young men actually never went back to their normal lives. They decided to permanently devote their lives to Buddhism as monks. In Thailand, monks are given preferential treatment quite often.
The surrounding community believes that offering food and drinks to monks will earn you good luck. This could explain why Buddha is depicted as a bigger fellow in many Buddhist depictions. He had quite a lot to eat. The best seats in public transportation and bus rides are reserved for monks.
In total, there are more than 30,000 temples in Thailand. That’s quite a lot of places to worship. If you visit these religious buildings, you must dress appropriately. You need to wear clothing that covers your shoulders and your knees. If you forget to abide by this strict dress code, you will be denied entry into the temple.
There are many tourists who forget to wear the correct clothing or don’t realize the importance of this rule. Some Thai entrepreneurs have opened up small clothing stores near these temples where you can buy elephant pants or an “I Love Thailand” shirt for a nominal price. Just hop over to one of these stores if you forget and they’ll let you into the temple.
At one point in time, Thailand was a democracy. In 2004, the country experienced a coup d’etat and the ruling party was overthrown in a bloodless coup. Since that time period, a military dictatorship has ruled over the country. Thailand recently experienced another election, however, it is not seen as very legitimate. The current ruling party will do anything to undermine those who oppose them.
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. The previous King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, was adored and loved by scores of the Thai population. The country had lese majeste rule, which means if you say negative things about the King, you would be imprisoned for treason. However, the country didn’t have to deal much with that at the time because the former King was so universally loved.
The current King is quite removed from politics – or at least he claims to be. The reality is that his approval of the Thai dictatorship is seen as undermining Democracy within the country. When his sister tried to run for political office, he stopped her from appearing on the ballots. He claimed that the ruling family is above the theatre politics (while simultaneously interfering in politics to do so).
As the digital age reforms our political landscape, Thailand is quickly changing. The government has increased monitoring of social media to look out for negative takes on the King. The country threatened to shut down Facebook when a picture of the King in a crop top went viral.
If you are in Thailand, you will see pictures of the King everywhere. It is important that you keep asinine comments to yourself. You can never be sure if a government official is nearby. There are few worse jails than the ones in Thailand. Don’t end up there for speaking out against the King. Feel free to speak out against the Thai junta, however! Most Thai people (who aren’t in the military and are under the age of 40) will agree with you.
The military coup can be a bit confusing when one considers that the country has experienced 19 military coups since 1932. 19 coups – that may be a higher number than the actual number of legitimate elections the country has held.
Thai citizens vote for representatives from various political parties. All these parties focus on different issues. For example, several represent Thailand’s military dictatorship. There is another party that focuses on restoring democracy in the country. One party is the gay and lesbian party of Thailand. Another is trying to push for full legalization of the sharing economy – Grab and Airbnb.
In total, there were actually 77 different parties that participated in the most recent election. We’ll explain a bit more about the most popular political groups in the country.
Pheu Thai is the most prominent party. They have won every election since their champion was elected prime minister in 2001. Pheu Thai tries to paint themselves as the party whose predominant focus is economic issues. They plan to increase the country’s minimum wage, boost tourism, help farmers out with subsidies, and help the healthcare industry. They also want to decrease the amount of money spent on the military (which seems reasonable given that Thailand hasn’t been in a war in quite some time).
Phalang Pracharath is the political party that acts on behalf of the Thai junta and military dictatorship. They have numerous accusations against them for bribing voters, threatening politicians, and pushing gerrymandered redistricting within the country.
Democrats represent the Centrist party in today’s Thai political ecosystem. While they certainly haven’t won an election in quite some time, they are still a popular party in the country. In the past, they have damaged their reputation by openly supporting military rule within a democracy. They have tried to backtrack on this reputation but it seems likely that they will succumb to whatever the junta leader wishes for them to do.
Future Forward is the party that unexpectedly received the newest support in the last election. Most expected the party to do well, but the elections showed Future Forward fared much better than expected. However, they did not win enough seats to issue a winning vote for a new prime minister.
Future Forward is represented by a Thai billionaire named Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. He is quite famous among young Thai citizens. He is an experienced sailor and is leading an expedition to explore Antarctica. He represents something of a billionaire playboy (yet wholesome) stereotype within the country.
People’s Reform is one of the few religious parties within the Thai election this year. They claim to act on behalf of Buddha’s teachings but most people who know anything about politics can understand that Buddha and the theatre of politics could not be more diverse. There were a series of protests in the past 5 years where practicing Buddhists were outraged at the party – believing that they were trying to exploit Buddhism for political gain.
Bhumjaitai is another popular new party in Thailand. Everyone who visits should be keenly aware that drugs are to be avoided unless you want to spend a few years in Thai prison. This political party is fighting for the complete and total legalization of marijuana in Thailand. They also support Grab and Airbnb. They are the only party who is pushing to decrease pollution within the smog-filled city.
To do this, Bhumjaitai is pushing a radical measure. They want to create an official four-day workweek for government employees, private businesses, and universities. They also want to create a place in every Bangkok district where citizens can gather to work with free wi-fi.
There are so many more parties to mention, however, those with knowledge of all of them could only be called Thai political junkies. Wherever your home country may be, it’s quite certain that the political atmosphere is wild, and at times, borderline embarrassing. It goes without saying but many in Thailand feel the same way about their system. I’ve even seen a breakdancer on Khao San Road with a hat that says “Make Thailand Great Again”.
Most people aren’t aware of the fact that Red Bull originated in Thailand. It’s actually believed to be the world’s oldest and foremost energy drink. The drink has been adapted and bought from Thailand and marketed towards extreme sports aficionados and young professionals who seek wings or an increase in their salary.
The drink was first invented in Thailand by a man name Chaleo Yoovidhya. He wanted truckers to stay alert on the road to decrease the number of accidents on highways. He also wanted rural workers in Thailand to be more productive. Chaleo named the drink ‘Krating Daeng’, which translates to the red colored type of bovine. Hence, the American name – Red Bull.
The drink was not stolen. Rather, an Austrian man made a deal with Yoovidhya to westernize the popular Thai drink. Chaleo did quite well for himself. The inventor actually died a multi-billionaire. Krating Daneg sells for only 33 cents in Thailand so he must’ve made great royalties on the Western version.
Thai people are extraordinarily friendly. Thailand has received the nickname ‘Land of Smiles’. From young children to toothless old men, everyone you make eye contact with will have an urge to smile at you. If you make eye contact, the customary next step is to smile. Don’t look away because you’re accustomed to a New York City style of interaction with strangers!
Thai people will always prefer peace over conflict (in theory, everyone should want this). However, most people above the age of 50 voted for the Thai junta because the military dictatorship implied it would cause a ruckus if they were not voted into power again. Many of the elderly folk just want to live in peace. A military dictatorship only affects their lives to a small degree when compared to civil war.
Toilets in Thailand
Here’s something that won’t make you smile. The toilet situation in Thailand can be a bit precarious if you’re not accustomed to Asian-style bathrooms. In Thailand, you should come to expect that you’ll encounter a squat toilet. You’re not going to like them if we had to bet. However, they get the job done (however messily).
These squat toilets don’t have a level to pull when it comes time to flush. Instead, they come with a filled bucket of water and a small pail you will use to wash down whatever is in the toilet.
In many restrooms, you can also find a normal, traditional toilet. They’re normally in neighboring stalls at the bigger places. Try one for the story, if for nothing else.
It’s an odd juxtaposition. Some parts of the country feature mainly squat toilets which feel primitive. Other neighborhoods almost exclusively offer high-tech bidets in their restrooms. The technology behind some of these bidets will make you feel as though you are living in Japan’s future.
Most of these bidet features have upwards of 25 buttons and the writing is exclusively in Korean. There is iconography on each button but for some reason, these images often only make the setup more confusing. For example, there is a hot water button if you only want a certain temperature to touch your buttocks. The icon for this looks nothing like a hot water sign.
Almost every Thai toilet you encounter will have a sign that reads ‘Do not flush toilet paper or feminine products’. The large majority of Thai plumbing systems cannot accommodate toilet paper like their Western toilet counterparts. These toilets try to conserve water so there is less water pressure to force down whatever is in the toilet. There are also normally much smaller pipes in Southeast Asia. It is a common practice to have a waste bin beside the toilet and a sign that reads ‘Do not flush toilet paper’.
While certainly gross to many Westerners, this is a common practice in Asia. After wiping, throw the toilet paper into the trash receptacle beside you. After doing so, you can use the hose as a bidet. This ensures that it’s now received a paper treatment and water treatment. You should wait a minute or two so your underwear isn’t wet when you put your pants back on.
7-Eleven in Thailand
If you’re looking for cheap food but aren’t willing to sacrifice your traditional sanitary expectation, then look no further than your local 7-Eleven. Seriously – definitely check out your local 7-Eleven in Thailand. You aren’t a real tourist if you never try a toastie from these convenience stores.
There are over 6,000 7-Elevens in Thailand, with 2,000 of them just in Bangkok, alone. It’s not an exaggeration to say that there is a 7/11 on every street corner. Sometimes, there are 2 7/11s across the street from one another. Albeit, crossing the street in Thailand can be quite tricky and dangerous so I think this is actually a smart move. This chain is a staple in Thai culture, and there is no mistaking why – delicious food at even better prices.
In Thailand, 7-Elevens are very different than the ones that you find in America. Other than a few items like Coca-Cola (which is found absolutely everywhere) and Snickers, you probably won’t find much “American” food here. Instead, you will find a plethora of delicious, and dare I say nutritious (?), snacks and meals.
The most famous treat inside these Thai 7-Elevens is certainly the “Toastie”. These scrumptious sandwiches come in a plastic wrapper in the refrigerated section of the store. You can choose between any of 10 different flavors. Once you purchase your “toastie”, the cashier will ask you if you want it heated up. The answer should always be, “Yes!” They take the sandwich and put it in a hot panini maker, and toast the “toastie” up for you.
The 7-Elevens are also home to tons of interesting Thai snacks that every visitor should try out. They have shrimp-flavored potato chips, dried squid, and coconut-covered peanuts. The possibilities are limitless at your local 7-Eleven. The prices are amazing too. You would have to try really hard to spend over $5 on one trip here. Overall, delicious, whether you are on a budget or not!
Simple Thai Words
We won’t teach you phrases that you’ll need to use frequently. There are a handful of other articles that can teach you the Thai language. Instead, we’re going to review 3 of the most commonly seen Thai words. We’ll also teach you the most commonly used phrase in the country.
The first word – “Wat”. A Buddhist temple or a monastery in Thailand is referred to as a “Wat”. If you are learning this for the first time, this can be quite a confusing exchange. You ask your tour guide ‘what is this building called?’. He responds with ‘Wat’ so you repeat yourself only for him to respond again with ‘Wat’. It creates quite the Abbott & Costello situation.
The second word – “Soi”. You’ll frequently hear that your destination is on Soi 38 or a small Soi behind the large hotel. There is even a popular bar in Bangkok called ‘Soi Cowboy’. For those of you who don’t know, the word ‘Soi’ means a small street.
The last word is ‘Wai’. This too can create quite the Abbott & Costello parody if you are learning for the first time. A Wai is a name for when your hands meet to perform a very tiny bow. It’s important to know how to correctly do this. You don’t need to fully bow like in Japan.
Instead, you can put your manners on display by changing the height of your hands. The higher you elevate your hands to perform a Wai greeting, the more polite your behavior is considered. If you meet someone younger than you or one of your peers, you can perform a Wai at the chest. If you meet someone older than you, perform a Wai at the chin level. If you meet a monk, perform your Wai close to the bridge of your nose.
One of the best phrases you can learn is ‘mai pen rai’. This can be used in a variety of different situations and roughly translates to any of the following – ‘never mind’, ‘it’s okay’, ‘you’re welcome’, ‘don’t mention it’, ‘don’t worry’, and ‘such is life’.
You can use this phrase a lot because as a tourist, you’ll likely misjudge plenty of situations or do something you soon realize you shouldn’t have done. A quick ‘mai pen rai’ will make the locals around you smile in most situations.
Economics of Thailand
Thailand is a country that has experienced rapid growth in the past 50 years. The country’s current population is 69.1 million people. The country’s GDP is 455 Billion (counted in US Dollars). Simple math shows that the GDP per capita ends up around $6,591 USD per person, so tell the street food vendor that they can keep the change. Don’t haggle too much to save yourself 50 cents.
Thailand’s personal income tax is capped at 35 percent of income. The top corporate tax rate is around 20 percent. If you visit Thailand for an extended period of time and keep your receipts, you can actually get receive all the Baht you spent in taxes. They have booths at the airport to allow you to file for this return.
The largest industries in Thailand are tourism, textiles, agricultural processing, tobacco, cement, computers and integrated circuits, plastics, automobiles, and automotive parts. Thailand’s tourism numbers are currently booming. Bloomberg Business expects 42 million tourists to visit Thailand in 2019.
What is the predominant religion in Thailand?
Over 90% of Thai citizens consider themselves Buddhist. Many continue the practice of sending their young boys to monasteries so they can experience life as a Buddhist monk for a few months. While there is no official religion (only the Thai King is legally required to be a Buddhist), this is still the most popular belief in the country. Christianity (Chiang Mai) and Islam (South Thailand) are two other popular religions in Thailand. It is debated as to whether Buddhism is a religion or a belief, but many in the country take their practice as seriously as any religion around the world.
Is Thailand a safe country for my family to travel?
While Thailand is not totally and absolutely free of all crime, it is still a very safe place to take your family. You should exercise common sense when traveling in the country. Don’t go out late at night or accept invitations from sketchy individuals. Stay away from areas that are clearly brothels and never accept someone’s offer to buy drugs. Thailand benefits tremendously from tourism and the country has a financial motive to keep the country safe for tourists.