Thailand: Introduction

  • © goelles,

    © goelles,


A land full of secrets – and the land of smiles

A farming village in Northeast Thailand: like a desert island on a vast ocean, it stands amidst the paddy fields, which stretch away as far as the eye can see. A monk walks along the dusty village street. An old woman kneels in front of her stilt house and offers the monk her alms: a small plastic bag filled with rice and two hard-boiled eggs. The monk stops and holds out his begging bowl. He does not thank the old woman; it is up to her to give thanks – for having the opportunity to do a good deed. She gets up and climbs the wooden stairs to her house.

When she reaches the top, she turns around again. She gazes into the distance, towards where the road loses itself in the rice fields. It leads all the way to Khorat, the provincial capital, and then further to Bangkok, the really big city. Her son works there as a taxi driver. Caught in the capital’s morning rush hour, maybe he’s the one who buys the chain of jasmine and orchid blossoms from the hawker – a fragrant good luck charm to be used as a decoration for his rear-view mirror. Whether you seek solace in a village or are caught up in traffic in the bustling city of Bangkok, one thing is certain: you are in a country like no other. It is a land full of secrets, a strange and exotic place. And yet you won’t feel like a stranger for long, for this is also the land of smiles.

It is the Thai people themselves who have made Thailand the top travel destination in Asia. Granted, it is not always easy to understand them: how, for example, can you fathom a nation which enthusiastically embraces all that is tansamai (modern), yet remains highly superstitious? Internet cafés spring up overnight, while the same individuals who are busy surfing the Internet are afraid of ghosts and build miniature houses on every corner – or even entire shrines – to appease the spirits. 

The spirits weren’t always placated in Thailand, however. Although Thais typically seek harmony, preferring restraint to taking up arms, this was not always the case with their neighbours to the northwest: in 1767 the Burmese invaded and annihilated Ayutthaya, one of the most magnificent cities of the age.

When the European powers came to the Far East to divide this part of the world amongst themselves, Siam was the only country in Southeast Asia that did not fall under colonial rule. As flexible as bamboo bending with the wind to avoid breaking, the nation also strategically manoeuvred itself during the tumultuous years of World War II. Instead of trying to stand up to the far superior forces of the Japanese, they officially became their allies.

The course of Thailand’s post-war history was largely decided by generals, who regularly came to power on the back of military coups. Student protests in 1973 and 1976 were brutally crushed. But the economic boom of the 1980s not only changed Bangkok’s skyline, it also had repercussions for its political landscape. The capital in particular saw the emergence of a broad-based middle class, who developed a political consciousness and demanded a say in shaping the nation.

While in previous decades it was students who had taken the streets, the dawn of the new millennium gave rise to mass protests. In 2008, government opponents occupied the international airport in Bangkok. In 2010, supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin, who had been driven out of office by a military coup, barricaded the main business quarter in Bangkok. The week-long protest was violently brought to an end by the military and the police, and dozens died in the process. 

The Central Plains: the rice bowl of the country

With an area of 513,120 sq km (198,117 sq mi), Thailand is nearly as large as France. Geographically speaking it is divided into four regions. The Central Plains, with their fertile alluvial soil, are renowned as the rice bowl of the country and, along with the metropolis of Bangkok, is simultaneously one of the most important industrial regions. The mountains of the North are the foothills of the Himalayas, where villagers clad in colourful costumes still implement shifting cultivation, and temperatures during winter months are conducive to growing strawberries and apples. The drought-prone Khorat Plateau of the Northeast is almost exclusively farmland, despite the mediocre soil. Around 20 million of the total population of almost 70 million live in this region; otherwise known as the Isan, it is regarded as the poorhouse of the nation, where many villages still have unsurfaced roads and residents get their water from wells or cisterns.

Comparatively few tourists travel to the Northeast. And yet, in many ways, this region is the most authentic part of the country, where the rhythm of life is still determined by sowing and harvesting, by rainy and dry seasons. But who would begrudge a foreigner from a cold climate his preference for a holiday destination where the slogan ‘Amazing Thailand’ really does hit the nail on the head: most tourists flock to the South, which extends down to the Malaysian border like the trunk of an elephant, dividing the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. There are fields of papayas and rows of rubber plantations, and coconut palms cast feathery shadows over creamy white beaches. Fishermen tie colourful scarves and blossom garlands on their boats, while trailing bougainvilleas adorn lush gardens. 

The only Thai city to merit the distinction of ‘metropolis’ is Bangkok. Approximately every seventh Thai lives here. At first glance, the cosmopolitan city seems like any other modern city with its skyscrapers and bumper-to-bumper traffic. Yet on closer inspection, you’ll discover a hodgepodge of architectural styles. High-rise buildings are painted in every colour of the rainbow, columned shopping centres resembling Greek temples, office buildings appear more like robots cast in concrete or giant Lego blocks. Suey mak – beautiful – is how the Thais describe Bangkok, for they fear monochromatic colours and boredom nearly as much as they do ghosts. The provincial cities paint quite another picture. The inhabitants once lived in wooden houses, which gradually succumbed to the tropical climate and in many cases have been replaced by modular concrete structures. Only on the island of Phuket, as well as in Takua Pa old town north of Khao Lak, can you find old villas and shop houses with Sino-Portuguese architecture.

Even up to the World War II most of the kingdom was blanketed by lush greenery: 70 percent of the area was forested. The rapidly growing population, however, has required ever more agricultural land. Today, the forested area has dwindled to approximately 20 percent. There are thought to be only 2,000 wild elephants roaming through the jungle, and the number of endangered big cats is estimated in the hundreds. Their sanctuaries make up only a few of the 99 national parks and protected regions, which comprise over half of the remaining forest area in Thailand. Nevertheless, you don’t have to go to a zoo to discover Thailand’s rich and varied fauna.

Some of the best dive sites in Southeast Asia

The Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea in particular are renowned as having some of the best dive sites in Southeast Asia, though you’ll have to be very lucky indeed to see – let alone swim with – a giant plankton-eating whale shark. But every dive school knows where to find the spotted (and harmless) leopard sharks that you can almost reach out and touch. You won’t need a guide to enjoy all the brightly coloured coral fish found in these temperate waters. Simply dive down and see!

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