The kingdom of Thailand lies in the heart of Southeast Asia, making it a natural gateway to Indochina, Myanmar and Southern China. Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist kingdom almost equidistant between India and China. For centuries known by outsiders as Siam, Thailand has been something of a Southeast Asian migratory, cultural and religious cross-roads. With an area of some 510,000 square kilometres and a population of some 57 million, Thailand is approximately the same size as France, and shares borders with Myanmar to the west and north, Laos to the north-east, Kampuchea to the west, and Malaysia to the south
Thailand has a tropical monsoon climate; temperatures normally range from an average annual high of 38° C to a low of 19° C. Southwest monsoons that arrive between May and July (except in the South) signal the advent of the rainy season (ridu fon), which lasts into October
The landforms and drainage divide the country more or less into four natural regions; the North, the Northeast, the Center, and the South. Although Bangkok geographically is part of the central plain, as the capital and largest city this metropolitan area may be considered in other respects a separate region. Each of the four geographical regions differs from the others in population, basic resources, natural features, and level of social and economic development. The diversity of the regions is in fact the most pronounced attribute of Thailand's physical setting.
The economy of Thailand is an emerging economy which is heavily export-dependent, with exports accounting for more than two thirds of gross domestic product (GDP) The exchange rate is Baht 33.00/USD. Thailand has a GDP worth 8.5 trillion Baht (on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis), or US$627 billion (PPP). This classifies Thailand as the 2nd largest economy in Southeast Asia after Indonesia. Despite this, Thailand ranks midway in the wealth spread in Southeast Asia as it is the 4th richest nation according to GDP per capita, after Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia.
The Thai language is the national and official language of Thailand and the mother tongue of the Thai people, Thailand's dominant ethnic group. However, English is widely understood, particularly in Bangkok where it is almost the major commercial language. English and other European languages are spoken in most hotels, shops and restaurants, in major tourist destinations, and Thai-English road and street signs are found nation-wide .
Education in Thailand is provided mainly by the Thai government through the Ministry of Education from pre-school to senior high school. A free basic education of twelve years is guaranteed by the constitution, and a minimum of nine years' school attendance is mandatory. Formal education consists of at least twelve years of basic education, and higher education. Basic education is divided into six years of primary education and six years of secondary education, the latter being further divided into three years of lower- and upper-secondary levels
According to the last census (2000) 94.7% of Thais are Buddhists of the Theravada tradition. Muslims are the second largest religious group in Thailand at 4.6%. Thailand's southernmost provinces - Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and part of Songkhla Chumphon have dominant Muslim populations, consisting of both ethnic Thai and Malay. The southern tip of Thailand is mostly ethnic Malays. Christians, mainly Catholics, represent 0.8% of the population with higher percentages in the north. A tiny but influential community of Sikhs in Thailand and some Hindus also live in the country's cities, and are heavily engaged in retail commerce
Thailand contains more than 30 ethnic groups varying in history, language, religion, appearance, and patterns of livelihood. However, the Thai, akin to the Lao of Laos, the Shan of Myanmar (Burma prior to June 1989), and the Thai groupings of southern China, comprise about 75% of the total population of Thailand. The Thai may be divided into three major groups and three minor groups. Major groups are the Central Thai (Siamese) of the Central Valley; the Eastern Thai (Lao) of the Northeast (Khorat); the Northern Thai (Lao) of North Thailand; and the Southern Thain (Chao Pak Thai) of peninsular Thailand
Many of Thailand's annual events are determined by the lunar calendar, so dates change from year to year, this is particularly true of religious holidays. However, most larger shops no longer close for public holidays, although smaller retail outlets and family shops close for Chinese New Year and Songkran. Provinces have their own local festivals to celebrate harvests of seasonal crops.
Taboos exist on some parts of the body that have little significance in Western culture. For example, the head is regarded as the highest part of the body and you should never touch another person on the head. By contrast, the foot is regarded as the lowest part of the body and you should take care never to point your foot towards anyone. This is an extremely insulting gesture! Try to get into Thai habits of sitting with your feet on the floor or tucked away under you. Even moving objects around with your feet is seen as very uncouth.
The literature in Thailand was traditionally heavily influenced by Indian culture. Thailand's national epic is a version of the Ramayana called the Ramakien. A number of versions of the epic were lost in the destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767. Three versions currently exist: one of these was prepared under the supervision (and partly written by) King Rama I. His son, Rama II, rewrote some parts for khon drama. The main differences from the original are an extended role for the monkey god Hanuman and the addition of a happy ending.
Thailand retains cultural connections with the two great centers of Asian civilizations, India and China. Though Thailand was never colonized by Western powers, pop music and other forms of European and American music have become extremely influential. The two most popular styles of traditional Thai music are luk thung and mor lam; the latter in particular has close affinities with the Music of Laos. Aside from the Thai, minorities of Laotians, Lawa, Hmong, Akha, Mien, Lisu, Karen and Lahu peoples have retained traditional musical forms.
Thai traditional dance is one of the truly graceful aspects of the country and is quite symbolic of the Thai character itself. To describe Thai Classical Dance, in words, can never do justice to the art-form. To view a performance, especially if many dancers are involved, reminds me of a field of sunflowers, or wheat, swaying in unison at the whim of an evening breeze. Or perhaps the soaring of seabirds as they ride the thermals - at one with the wind. Thai Dancing is a pageant of poetry in motion.
Admitting Indian, Khmer, and other external influences, Thai Buddhist architects developed their own distinctive styles of soaring multitiered rooftops and towering spires straining toward the sky. Harmoniously combining two apparently paradoxical elements, flamboyancy and serenity, the style perfectly mirrors the Thai soul. Although most early Thai buildings were made of wood and have long since disappeared, taking with them the architectural principals according to which they were built, a developmental history of Thai architecture can still be traced through surviving stone temples.