The Kingdom of Thailand, formerly known as Siam, is situated in the heart of South-east Asia. Thailand lies between the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to its north-east, Myanmar to its north-west and western, Cambodia to the south-east, and Malaysia on the southern border.
GEOGRAPHY: Thailand comprises 76 provinces, which are divided into districts, sub-districts and villages. Covering an area of approximately 514,000 sq km, the country can be broadly divided into four geographic regions. The central region includes the Bangkok metropolitan area and the basin of the Chao Phraya River, which runs from north to south and flows into the Gulf of Thailand. Next, the northern region, which is heavily forested and mountainous makes up roughly one-third of Thailand’s total land mass. It encompasses the Khorat Plateau and is boarded on the north and the east by the Mekong River. The southern region extends roughly from Chumphon, 460 km south of Bangkok, through the Kra Isthmus along to the Thai-Malaysian border, which is framed by the Gulf of Thailand to the east.
HISTORY: The Kingdom of Thailand was formally erected in the mid 14th century, although Thais first began settling in their present territory as early as the sixth century. By the end of the 13th century, they ruled most of the western region. Known as Siam (land of the white elephant) until 1939, Thailand is the only country in South-east Asia to have never been colonised. Although an Anglo-French accord signed in 1896 guaranteed Thailand’s independence as buffer between the two powers, Great Britain had held a colonial foothold in the region since in 1824. In 1932, a coup established a constitutional monarchy in Thailand, with a representative government based on universal suffrage. Thailand’s sovereignty was not seriously challenged until the Second World War when Japan invaded the country.
International events continued to influence Thailand throughout the 1960s as conflicts arising in neighbouring countries like Cambodia and Vietnam had rippling effects for the region. The US remained a close ally during this period, and Thailand receiving approximately $2bn in economic and military aid and permitted US military bases on its territory.
Following the conclusion of the Vietnam War in 1975, Thailand reformed its diplomatic policies and asked US forces to remove their military outposts. The 1970s were also marked by domestic political unrest, with periods of military rule and civil demonstrations upending stability throughout the nation. In 1973, student demonstrations against the military junta were so severe that after violence began King Bhumibol Adulyadej gave sanctuary to the students in the Chitralada Palace. He then expelled the prime minister and removed the reigning junta.
ECONOMY: Stability and economic progress characterised the mid- to late-1980s, as booming markets and political stability allowed the economy to move forward. Growth remained strong at roughly 6% and increased to above 8% in 1986, a level it maintained for 10 years. Growth rates hit their peak between 1988 and 1990, averaging 12% per year.
However, the rapid economic expansion did not last, and years of soaring market growth were abruptly halted by the Asian economic crisis in 1997-98. The Thai economy became mired in a deep recession resulting from the severe financial problems that faced many Thai companies, banks and financial institutions. Exports, which were a significant driver of growth, collapsed in 1996 and raised doubts about the Bank of Thailand’s ability to maintain the baht’s peg against the dollar. A variety of international investors that had previously been investing heavily in the state removed or lost their capital, leaving many sectors of the economy exposed, most notably in the real estate sector where foreign investment had been particularly high.
Like the recent global financial crisis that emerged out of the US sub-prime market, the recession spread rapidly throughout the region. The crisis that had first materialised in Thailand quickly spread to Indonesia, Malaysia and later South Korea as well.
CLIMATE: Under the Koppen Climate classification system, Thailand is described as having a tropical monsoon climate, characterised by warm temperatures and high humidity levels. However, variations are found between the north and south. The south has both a rainy and a dry season. The rainy season differs between the west and the east coasts: the south-west monsoons generally bring heavy storms from April to October, while the east coast rains begin in September and end in December.
The north has a savannah climate with three different seasons. The first is a mild and sunny winter with temperatures ranging in the mid-20°C range from November through February. A hot summer season follows extending roughly from March through May, with temperatures hovering between 28°C and 37°C and lasting until the monsoon arrives. The rainy season typically begins in late June and continues through until October.
RELIGION & CULTURE: The dominant religion in Thailand is Hinayana Buddhism or Theravada Buddhism, similar to that practised by other countries in the region including Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. Buddhists make up roughly 94% of the total population, while Muslims represent 3.9%, Confucians 1.7% and Christians some 0.65%.
Naturally, Buddhism forms an integral part of Thai culture, acting not only as the dominant religious faith, but also comprising the base of many of the country’s rituals, its monarchy and the national identity. The country’s tri-colour flag emphasises this influence with the two white stripes representing Buddhism. The white runs alongside red bands symbolising the colour of the nation, and blue stripe represents the monarchy. Religion also influences the country’s art, literature and architecture. Buddhist temples, shrines and intricate statues decorated in gold are a ubiquitous feature of the Thai landscape.
Many Buddhist males above the age of 21 are ordained for a period between five days and three months at least once during their lifetimes. This ritual often takes place during the rainy season when monks stop their travels and remain in their monasteries. To this day, the custom is supported by the Thai government and forms an important part of a young adult male’s life. As a result, even male civil servants are allowed to leave their positions for up to three months to complete their monastic duties. Each day of the week is associated with a Buddhist colour: yellow for Monday, pink for Tuesday, green for Wednesday, orange for Thursday, blue for Friday, purple for Saturday and red for Sunday. It is therefore a sign of respect for visitors to adopt this colour coordination in their dress.
POPULATION: Thailand is the 20th-most populated country in the world with a population of about 65.7m. The average annual population growth rate is estimated to be around 0.7%, and is projected to reach a stable population of 70.2m by 2025. The capital city Bangkok alone is home to anywhere between 8m and 10m people, and it is by far the biggest city in the country.
Of the population, 78% are ethnically Thai, but within this group a significant range of dialects and diversity of customs exists. The largest minority group is the ethnic Chinese, which comprises 11% of the population and is mainly centred in Bangkok, especially in the thriving Chinatown district of the city. Other prominent ethnic groups include Malays, Cambodians, Indians and Vietnamese.
LANGUAGE: The majority of the local population speaks Thai. The language can be traced to the Tai language family that has its roots in the Austric language group. Four main Tai languages are spoken across the country, the most common being Central Thai or Bangkok Thai. The others include Southern Thai, Northern Thai and Laotian, commonly referred to as North-eastern Thai. The Thai language is believed to have originated in the region now bordering Vietnam and China.
NATURAL RESOURCES: Thailand is home to an abundance of natural resources. Metallic resources include lead, tin, tungsten, tantalum, zinc, iron, and silver. Gold deposits are located in Phichit, Loei, Narathiwat, Phetchabun and Prachinburi.
In terms of energy resources, Thailand has both onshore and offshore gas and oil fields. The country’s proven oil reserves stood at roughly 659m barrels by the end of 2011. Reserves have increased in recent years after standing at 100m barrels in 1987 and 300m barrels in 1997, however the reserve rate has remained relatively constant since 2006 as new discoveries have balanced out the depletion of old reserves. Nevertheless, Thailand is the region’s second-largest net oil importer after Singapore. Other natural resources include natural gas, fluorite, gypsium, lignite, rubber, timber and a multitude of locally harvested food products and fish from the sea.