Thailand officially the Kingdom of Thailand formerly known as Siam, is a country at the center of the Indochinese peninsula in Southeast Asia. With a total area of approximately 513,000 km2, Thailand is the world’s 51st-largest country. It is the 20th-most-populous country in the world, with around 66 million people. The capital and largest city is Bangkok.
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and was a parliamentary democracy until the coup in May 2014 by National Council for Peace and Order. Its capital and most populous city is Bangkok. It is bordered to the north by Myanmar and Laos, to the east by Laos and Cambodia, to the south by the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia, and to the west by the Andaman Sea and the southern extremity of Myanmar. Its maritime boundaries include Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand to the southeast, and Indonesia and India on the Andaman Sea to the southwest.
The Thai economy is the world’s 20th largest by nominal GDP and the 27th largest by GDP at PPP. It became a newly industrialized country and a major exporter in the 1990s. Manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism are leading sectors of the economy. It is considered a middle power in the region and around the world.
The official language of Thailand is Thai, a Tai–Kadai language closely related to Lao, Shan in Myanmar, and numerous smaller languages spoken in an arc from Hainan and Yunnan south to the Chinese border. It is the principal language of education and government and spoken throughout the country. The standard is based on the dialect of the central Thai people, and it is written in the Thai alphabet, an abugida script that evolved from the Khmer alphabet. Several other dialects exist, and coincide with the regional designations. Southern Thai is spoken in the southern provinces, and Northern Thai is spoken in the provinces that were formerly part of the independent kingdom of Lan Na.
Thailand is also host to several other minority languages, the largest of which is the Lao dialect of Isan spoken in the northeastern provinces. Although sometimes considered a Thai dialect, it is a Lao dialect, and the region in where it is traditionally spoken was historically part of the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang. In the far south, Kelantan-Pattani Malay is the primary language of Malay Muslims. Varieties of Chinese are also spoken by the large Thai Chinese population, with the Teochew dialect best-represented.
Numerous tribal languages are also spoken, including many Austroasiatic languages such as Mon, Khmer, Viet, Mlabri and Orang Asli; Austronesian languages such as Cham and Moken; Sino-Tibetan languages like Lawa, Akha, and Karen; and other Tai languages such as Tai Yo, Phu Thai, and Saek. Hmong is a member of the Hmong–Mien languages, which is now regarded as a language family of its own.
English is a mandatory school subject, but the number of fluent speakers remains low, especially outside cities.
Thailand’s prevalent religion is Theravada Buddhism, which is an integral part of Thai identity and culture. Active participation in Buddhism is among the highest in the world. According to the 2000 census, 94.6% of the country’s population self-identified as Buddhists of the Theravada tradition. Muslims constitute the second largest religious group in Thailand, comprising 4.6% of the population.
Islam is concentrated mostly in the country’s southernmost provinces: Pattani, Yala, Satun, Narathiwat, and part of Songkhla Chumphon, which are predominantly Malay, most of whom are Sunni Muslims. Christians represent 0.7% of the population, with the remaining population consisting of Sikhs and Hindus, who live mostly in the country’s cities. There is also a small but historically significant Jewish community in Thailand dating back to the 17th century.
Thai culture has been shaped by many influences, including Indian, Lao, Burmese, Cambodian, and Chinese.
Its traditions incorporate a great deal of influence from India, China, Cambodia, and the rest of Southeast Asia. Thailand’s national religion, Theravada Buddhism, is central to modern Thai identity. Thai Buddhism has evolved over time to include many regional beliefs originating from Hinduism, animism, as well as ancestor worship. The official calendar in Thailand is based on the Eastern version of the Buddhist Era (BE), which is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian (Western) calendar. Thus the year 2015 is 2558 BE in Thailand.
Several different ethnic groups, many of which are marginalized, populate Thailand. Some of these groups spill over into Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia and have mediated change between their traditional local culture, national Thai, and global cultural influences. Overseas Chinese also form a significant part of Thai society, particularly in and around Bangkok. Their successful integration into Thai society has allowed for this group to hold positions of economic and political power. Thai Chinese businesses prosper as part of the larger bamboo network, a network of overseas Chinese businesses operating in the markets of Southeast Asia that share common family and cultural ties.
The traditional Thai greeting, the wai, is generally offered first by the younger of the two people meeting, with their hands pressed together, fingertips pointing upwards as the head is bowed to touch face to fingertips, usually coinciding with the spoken words “sawatdi khrap” for male speakers, and “sawatdi kha” for females. The elder may then respond in the same way. Social status and position, such as in government, will also have an influence on who performs the wai first. For example, although one may be considerably older than a provincial governor, when meeting it is usually the visitor who pays respect first. When children leave to go to school, they are taught to wai their parents to indicate their respect. The wai is a sign of respect and reverence for another, similar to the Namaste greeting of India and Nepal.
As with other Asian cultures, respect towards ancestors is an essential part of Thai spiritual practice. Thais have a strong sense of hospitality and generosity, but also a strong sense of social hierarchy. Seniority is paramount in Thai culture. Elders have by tradition ruled in family decisions or ceremonies. Older siblings have duties to younger ones.
Taboos in Thailand include touching someone’s head or pointing with the feet, as the head is considered the most sacred and the foot the lowest part of the body.
Thailand’s climate is influenced by monsoon winds that have a seasonal character (the southwest and northeast monsoon). The southwest monsoon, which starts from May until October is characterized by movement of warm, moist air from the Indian Ocean to Thailand, causing abundant rain over most of the country. The northeast monsoon, starting from October until February brings cold and dry air from China over most of Thailand. In southern Thailand, the northeast monsoon brings mild weather and abundant rainfall on the eastern coast of that region. Most of Thailand has a “tropical wet and dry or savanna climate” type (Köppen’s Tropical savanna climate). The south and the eastern tip of the east have a tropical monsoon climate.
Thailand is divided into three seasons. The first is the rainy or southwest monsoon season (mid–May to mid–October) which prevails over most of the country. This season is characterized by abundant rain with August and September being the wettest period of the year. This can occasionally lead to floods. In addition to rainfall caused by the southwest monsoon, the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) and tropical cyclones also contribute to producing heavy rainfall during the rainy season. Nonetheless, dry spells commonly occur for 1 to 2 weeks from June to early July. This is due to the northward movement of the Intertropical Convergence Zone to southern China. Winter or the northeast monsoon starts from mid–October until mid–February. Most of Thailand experiences dry weather during this season with mild temperatures. The exception is the southern parts of Thailand where it receives abundant rainfall, particularly during October to November. Summer or the pre–monsoon season runs from mid–February until mid–May and is characterized by warmer weather.
Due to its inland nature and latitude, the north, northeast, central and eastern parts of Thailand experience a long period of warm weather. During the hottest time of the year (March to May), temperatures usually reach up to 40 °C (104 °F) or more with the exception of coastal areas where sea breezes moderate afternoon temperatures. In contrast, outbreaks of cold air from China can bring colder temperatures; in some cases (particularly the north and northeast) close to or below 0 °C (32 °F). Southern Thailand is characterized by mild weather year round with less diurnal and seasonal variations in temperatures due to maritime influences.
Most of the country receives a mean annual rainfall of 1,200 to 1,600 mm (47 to 63 in). However, certain areas on the windward sides of mountains such as Ranong province in the west coast of southern Thailand and eastern parts of Trat Province receive more than 4,500 mm (180 in) of rainfall per year. The driest areas are on the leeward side in the central valleys and northernmost portion of south Thailand where mean annual rainfall is less than 1,200 mm (47 in). Most of Thailand (north, northeast, central and east) is characterized by dry weather during the northeast monsoon and abundant rainfall during the southwest monsoon. In the southern parts of Thailand, abundant rainfall occurs in both the northeast and southwest monsoon seasons with a peak in September for the western coast and a peak in November–January on the eastern coast.
The elephant is Thailand’s national symbol. Although there were 100,000 domesticated elephants in Thailand in 1850, the population of elephants has dropped to an estimated 2,000. Poachers have long hunted elephants for ivory, meat, and hides. Young elephants are often captured for use in tourist attractions or as work animals, although their use has declined since the government banned logging in 1989. There are now more elephants in captivity than in the wild, and environmental activists claim that elephants in captivity are often mistreated.
Poaching of protected species remains a major problem. Hunters have decimated the populations of tigers, leopards, and other large cats for their valuable pelts. Many animals (including tigers, bears, crocodiles, and king cobras) are farmed or hunted for their meat, which is considered a delicacy, and for their supposed medicinal properties. Although such trade is illegal, the famous Bangkok market Chatuchak is still known for the sale of endangered species.
The practice of keeping wild animals as pets threatens several species. Baby animals are typically captured and sold, which often requires killing the mother. Once in captivity and out of their natural habitat, many pets die or fail to reproduce. Affected populations include the Asiatic black bear, Malayan sun bear, white-handed lar, pileated gibbon and binturong.
In 2014 the literacy rate was 93.5%. Education is provided by a well-organized school system of kindergartens, primary, lower secondary and upper secondary schools, numerous vocational colleges, and universities. The private sector of education is well developed and significantly contributes to the overall provision of education which the government would not be able to meet with public establishments. Education is compulsory up to and including age 14, with the government providing free education through to age 17.
Teaching relies heavily on rote learning rather than on student-centred methodology. The establishment of reliable and coherent curricula for its primary and secondary schools is subject to such rapid changes that schools and their teachers are not always sure what they are supposed to be teaching, and authors and publishers of textbooks are unable to write and print new editions quickly enough to keep up with the volatility. Issues concerning university entrance has been in constant upheaval for a number of years. Nevertheless, Thai education has seen its greatest progress in the years since 2001. Most of the present generation of students are computer literate. Thailand was ranked 54th out of 56 countries globally for English proficiency, the second-lowest in Asia.
Students in ethnic minority areas score consistently lower in standardised national and international tests. This is likely due to unequal allocation of educational resources, weak teacher training, poverty, and low Thai language skill, the language of the tests.
Extensive nationwide IQ tests were administered to 72,780 Thai students from December 2010 to January 2011. The average IQ was found to be 98.59, which is higher than previous studies have found. IQ levels were found to be inconsistent throughout the country, with the lowest average of 88.07 found in the southern region of Narathiwat Province and the highest average of 108.91 reported in Nonthaburi Province. The Ministry of Public Health blames the discrepancies on iodine deficiency and steps are being taken to require that iodine be added to table salt, a practice common in many Western countries.
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