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ALUN RHYS GRIFFITHS

THAILAND : LAND OF SMILES

Exotic tropical beaches - the biggest attraction for most tourists

INTRODUCTION

The author of this page has visited the nation of Thailand on a number of occasions, not as a travel expert, but as a tourist, amateur photographer and writer. During these visits many key attractions have been explored, and a photographic record maintained.

On this page I include a resume of the key facts about this country, I briefly summarise its geography and its history, I mention some of the important tourist attractions, and I write about the Thai people and their culture.

This page therefore is first and foremost a simple introduction to the country. The articles on other pages will include information about some of the major attractions, as well as some personal reflections on my many experiences in Thailand - a nation which has over the years acquired the most charming of epithets - 'The Land of Smiles'.

All photos have been taken by the author during his visits to the country.

The map of Thailand, its neighbouring nations and the coastline

The topography of Thailand. Note the mountain ranges in the north, and the two great river basins of Central Thailand - the Chao Phraya and the Mekong

THE GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE OF THAILAND

The Kingdom of Thailand lies at the heart of the region of South-East Asia, known as Indochina, sharing borders with the nations of Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia.

The country, which covers an area of 513,000 sq km (198,000 sq miles), is comparable in size to Spain, larger than the State of California yet rather smaller than the State of Texas. The peninsula nature of South Thailand creates a very long coastline of more than 3,000 km (2,000 miles), and this has been very significant in greatly benefitting Thailand's international trade, as well as internal industries such as fisheries and tourism.

Much of the land in the north and the extreme west is above 500 metres in height. The highest mountain is Doi Inthanon at 2,565 meters (8,415 ft). A smaller range of high hills runs north-south through the centre of the country dividing the land into two great river basins - the Chao Phraya in the west, and the Mekong in the east. Most of the land in these river basins is much lower lying, and this land provides Thailand with its fertile agricultural plains. The peninsular south of Thailand is bounded on the western side by the Andaman Sea and on the eastern side by the Gulf of Thailand, and is a region of lush forest, beautiful limestone karst scenery and coral islands.

Just north of the equator but lying well within the Tropic of Cancer, and with temperatures varying between 19 and 38°C (66-100°F), Thailand's climate is generally hot and humid, but three seasons can be identified through most of the country - a 'hot' season from May to August, a 'rainy' season from September to October (in reality the weather is usually fine, but heavy monsoon rainstorms are quite common), and a 'cool' season from November to April (which is not much cooler, but it is much drier and less humid, and this is therefore the most pleasant time to visit). Temperatures, in truth, show little seasonal variation in most regions of Thailand, but rainfall does.

Elephant trekking is popular in the southern islands and the northern hills

THE REGIONS OF THAILAND

Strictly from the point of view of tourists, this country can be conveniently divided into four regions - the City of Bangkok, the northwest and the hill tribes, the Isaan region of the northeast and the beaches and islands to the south. The following sections contain brief descriptions of some of the major attractions, the geography and climate, the history and culture, which bring tourists to these parts of Thailand.

BANGKOK

The capital city of Thailand features prominently in my articles, because whatever part of Thailand the tourist intends to visit, Bangkok will usually be on the itinerary somewhere along the line, either as the arrival point into the country or the departure point to the rest of the world. And the majority of visitors will at least spend a day or two in Bangkok before they head off to other parts. And what a place to spend a couple of days! Noisy, overpopulated, traffic-jammed, exotic and vibrant - Bangkok is a city unlike any other, and I like it. Perhaps not a place to spend a month, but for a few days, there are the most intricately decorated of temples, there are street markets where the city really comes to life, and there's great shopping and entertainments to cater for all tastes. And not far from the city is the ancient ruined Capital of Ayutthaya, and the beach at Pattaya is just a day trip away.

The ruined city of Ayutthaya

THE NORTHWEST / THE HILL TRIBES

For those who wish for a more adventurous or cultural vacation in Thailand, the northwest of the country offers a very different experience. The northwest is home to the ancient kingdoms of Sukhothai and Lanna, and the modern city of Chiang Mai - by all accounts a much more relaxed, less hectic, more beautiful city than Bangkok. But the main appeal for the tourists who head to the forested mountains, the deep valleys and cooler climate of the northwest, is culture. Here there is the opportunity to live as a guest of the hill tribes of the region - distinct, indigenous tribes who to a large extent have preserved their traditional lifestyles, their own local language, colourful dress and farming techniques. This is authentic Thailand, and a visit to these parts can be a rewarding experience for many. To date I have not visited the northwest (hence no photos), but perhaps in the future?

THE ISLANDS TO THE SOUTH

The majority of tourists who come to Thailand flock to the south, to beach resorts such as Krabi and Khao Lak, and to the beautiful limestone karst islands. The most popular tourist destinations include the islands of Koh Samui and Phuket. And in the Andaman Sea there lies the famously exotic Phi Phi Islands as well as many others to choose from. Whatever your personal preference, there is an island or a resort for you - whether it be the family hotel and beach resort, the active water sports haven, the hippie mecca, or the peaceful and unspoilt natural paradise.

The beautiful Phi Phi Islands

THE NORTHEAST

The country between Bangkok and Laos to the north and northeast, and between Bangkok and Cambodia to the east, is the least touristy in the country. It is the most rural, and is generally speaking, the least affluent. Much of this land lies in a region known as 'Isaan', a culturally distinct area with its own dialect, cuisine and traditions. The main cities are Udon Thani and Khon Kaen. Not so many Western visitors travel to this area, unless they are backpackers who wish to sample rural life in Thailand whilst passing through to Laos or Cambodia. But there are many little known delights, both ancient and modern, to attract in the region, and some of these are to be found in my pages, as I have been fortunate enough to spend a number of weeks in this part of the country as the guest of a Thai family.

A giant Buddha statue which stands on a prominent hill in N.E Thailand

HISTORY OF THAILAND

The history of the Thai people before the 13th century is unfortunately not clear today. There were certainly Stone Age settlements in Thailand, whilst Bronze Age civilisation in Ban Chiang in northern Thailand has left many relics. But little else is known for certain. During the following millennium, a series of migrations and invasions by various groups including southern Chinese and Burmese tribes took place, and during this period Indian settlers brought with them the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Many rival tribes and local cultures competed for influence and regional supremacy, but gradually two great kingdoms would develop - Lanna in the north west, and Sukhothai, a little further south. Lanna was a powerful state for hundreds of years, but by the 13th century, Sukhothai had established a region of extensive dominance, and during this time the distinctive Thai alphabet was established, and Buddhism became the state religion. But the borders of both Lanna and Sukhothai were far from secure and they were prone to constant incursions from neighbouring states. Lanna gradually declined after long periods of internal and external conflict, while Sukhothai's dominance was short-lived. The remains of the capital of Sukhothai which date from 1238 AD can still be seen today, and are usually regarded as the ruins of the first major city in Thailand.

At this time a powerful new kingdom was developing in the south, and this was soon to absorb Sukhothai into its boundaries. This kingdom was Ayutthaya, and its capital city was established in 1350. Ayutthaya soon spread its influence to incorporate much of modern day Thailand as well as parts of neighbouring Laos and Cambodia, and its emergence signalled the beginnings of a united Thailand which survived largely without serious challenge for 400 years. During this time, Thailand prospered, and trade with the rest of the world including the great European powers began.

However, in 1767 the capital of Ayutthaya fell under the assault of Burmese forces, and was almost completely destroyed, and the Thais had to regroup and start again under King Rama I, the first ruler of the Chakri dynasty which still prevails to this day. They built a brand new capital 80 kilometres south in a region called Thonburi on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. Gradually this settlement developed across the river, and it was on the East bank that a great city later burgeoned to become modern day Bangkok.

During the 19th century, many neighbouring states were colonised by the great powers of Britain and France, but Thailand, as a result of careful diplomacy by its rulers, remained independent and the country began to prosper once more.

In 1932, the absolute monarchy which had ruled Thailand for so long came to an end with a bloodless coup by the military, but the King was very soon re-installed as a constitutional monarch.

 

Throughout much of its history from about the 13th century, the name of 'Siam' was used for the region, gradually being adopted by both the indigenous people and by European traders as the official name of the country. But on 24th June 1939, the nation - the only one in south east Asia to remain forever free of European colonisation - officially changed its name to 'Thailand', which means 'Free Land'. Today Thailand remains proud of its claim never to have come under the control of a Western empire.

Bang-Pa In - once the Summer Palace in the Kingdom of Ayutthaya

Thailand - The Buddhist Nation

THE ECONOMY

The economy is the second largest in S.E Asia, and Thailand's exports are of vital importance. Principal trade is in fish and agricultural foods - Thailand is one of the world's largest exporters of rice. Other major commodities include textiles and rubber, jewellery, computer goods and electrical appliances. This export market also means that despite its appeal as a vacation destination, Thailand relies on tourism for only 7% of its gross domestic product.

THE GOVERNMENT

Thailand has been a constitutional hereditary monarchy since 1932. The present Head of State is King Rama X, Maha Vajiralongkorn. As a constitutional monarch he takes no direct role in the day to day politics of the country, but remains a much revered and loved figure across all political divides. Following the ending of absolute monarchy, a series of military dictatorships alternated with civilian prime ministers in the mid to late 20th century, but gradually the country has been stabilising into democracy. Democracy is still not entirely secure, and rifts between the two major parties and between the urban and rural populations have led to sporadic civil disturbances and army interventions. It should however, be made clear that these actions are usually very short-lived and localised - it seems the army has no wish to dominate political affairs, and when such incidents have occurred, power has been quickly returned to civilian authorities. Essentially the country is peaceful. Today there is an elected Prime Minister as the head of a government which consists of two Houses of Parliament - a Senate and a House of Representatives. The judiciary is independent of government.

*In 2016 the previous King, Rama IX, Bhumibol Adulyadej died. He had been the longest reigning monarch in the world at the time. Currently also, the country is once again under military rule, and yet remains essentially peaceful.

Buddhism - The principal religion of Thailand

A traditional Thai dancer. Thais are rightly proud of their culture, though it is a culture derived from many regional influences over the centuries of settlement

THE THAI PEOPLE - ETHNICITY AND RELIGION

Approximately 65 million people live in Thailand, of which more than 80% can be described as ethnically Thai - the descendants of the peoples who have lived throughout the region or settled here over most of the past 2000 years. They all broadly speak the same language, though there are regional dialects and differences in vocabulary, most notably in the Isaan region of North East Thailand.

Of the remaining 15 to 20% of the population, the majority are more recent Chinese arrivals, with smaller numbers of immigrants from other neighbouring countries, as well as Western settlers. Lastly there are the ethnically distinct hill tribes of the North West such as the Hmong and Karen - peoples who have never fully integrated into the Thai culture of the rest of the country.

95% of Thais belong to the Theravada School of the Buddhist faith, the expression of Buddhism most prevalent in Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Sri Lanka, and most closely allied to the Buddha's original teachings. Other schools of Buddhism - Mahayana, and its more diverse variations including Vajrayana and Zen Buddhism - are predominant in the far east, in China, Japan and Vietnam, and also in the Dalai Lama's Tibet. In practice, the differences between the schools are not huge, and perhaps most obvious to tourists is the colour of the robes of the monks - unlike the maroon robes so familiarly worn by the Dalai Lama, Thai monks wear saffron orange-yellow or ochre-brown.

The only other faith of significance in Thailand is Islam, which forms the majority religion in three extreme southern provinces. Sadly, as is so often the case in the world today, religious and cultural tensions have led to separatist movements here, and increasing incidents of violence. It should be stressed however, that these tensions rarely impinge upon the areas of the south which most tourists frequent.

Consultation with a Buddhist monk

THE THAI PEOPLE - CULTURE AND ETIQUETTE

A popular description for Thailand which the nation likes to encourage, is 'The Land of Smiles'. Although of course Thais can be as miserable as the rest of us, there is some small degree of truth to the nickname which has been applied to the country. Thai people do tend to smile more than most as a way of easing tensions. And they do have a relatively peaceful contented way of viewing the world, and they are usually not aggressive by nature. Customs and etiquette are observed but not usually fanatically so, as befits a pacific religion like Buddhism.

For the traveller there are however, some aspects of Thai culture and etiquette which should be observed out of respect for the people. Any guide book will list the do's and don'ts of how to conduct oneself as a tourist on holiday in Thailand. The following list is a basic guide to key requirements:

The wai is, for me, one of the most enchanting aspects of Thai culture. It is the greeting in which hands are held together prayer-like in front of the body, and it is so much more graceful than a handshake. Thais will, of course happily accept a handshake from a foreigner, but a wai will be especially appreciated.

By tradition, the head - the top of the body - is considered sacred, and the feet - the lowest part of the body - are also considered the lowest in other respects. Therefore, one shouldn't really touch the head of a stranger, or sit with bare feet pointed towards another person. (Having said this, I haven't yet noticed any obvious distaste when Thais are confronted with such a sight).

Speaking of the feet, one custom which appears to be almost universally observed is the removal of shoes when entering private houses. It also tends to be observed by locals in hotel rooms. Most importantly, it is definitely required upon entering the most sacred of the temple buildings.

Religion is the institution on which Thai etiquette is most important. Monks, who are familiar figures on the streets in their orange robes, should be treated with some respect, and should not be touched by women - if a female wishes to offer gifts to a monk, the gift should placed in front, for the monk to pick up.

If respect for religion seems an obviously judicious requirement, the necessity of respecting the king of another country in this day and age may not be so obvious. Yet in Thailand, photos of the King are everywhere, and he is revered. Anyone showing gross disrespect may find themselves in trouble. And when the national anthem is played, for example in cinemas, the public stand.

One of the most famous of Thai traditions is the floating market - once the mainstay of trade on the canals, but now largely maintained as a tourist attraction

A guard staue at Wat Phra Kaew Temple in Bangkok

TOURISM

No country in South Eastern Asia receives more tourists than Thailand, and with good reason. Great sandy beaches and coral islands, great historic and religious attractions, and distinctive modern culture, cuisine and night life, all mean that this country has plenty to offer. Coupled with this, Thailand is relatively safe and welcoming for the tourist with moderate attitudes and tolerance of foreign customs. Finally, the climate is tropical and the nature is exotic. Any time of the year can be a good time to visit, though the 'cool' season of December to February is the most popular and most expensive period of the year. Off peak is May to August when Thailand is quite humid.

The people who travel are of all kinds:

1) For those who want comfort and relaxation, Thailand boasts some of the finest of hotels including luxury spa resorts in the south, and five star properties in Bangkok.

2) For those who want sun, sea and sand, Thailand's huge coastline and many islands offers everything one could hope for.

3) For those who want Asia on a budget, Thailand has a magnetic draw for backpackers and carefree teenagers, and lots of cheap rooms in which to deposit their rucksacks!

4) For those who want exotic, lively and sometimes dubious night life, Bangkok has it all - enough said!

5) For those who want culture in the raw, trekking vacations, and living as guests of a hill tribe family, there are now options readily available to the more adventurous traveller.

Exotic hotel setting in Krabi. And if you don't want to swim in the pool, the Andaman Sea is just one mile away

Long-tail boat in the Andaman Sea. This photo was taken in the Phi Phi Islands, where rock climbing, kayaking, snorkeling and diving, are all options to try

THAILAND - A COUNTRY TO VISIT AND ENJOY

Thailand means different things to different people. To some it means a lazy beach holiday on Phuket Island or snorkeling around the beautiful limestone islands of the south. To others it means cultural adventures and hill trekking among the tribes of the north west. And to yet others it means colourful temples, and exotic nightlife and world famous cuisine in bustling Bangkok. But to all who visit, Thailand should mean an enjoyable experience among friendly people - a richly memorable vacation.

I hope that the pages in this website which are linked to in the menu above, help to provide a flavour of the country, the places to visit, and the experiences to enjoy. And above all, I hope that if you do choose to go there, you will enjoy your vacation to Thailand - the Land of Smiles.

'Land of Smiles'

Thai children

If you have read this introduction to Thailand, please take a look at any of the other articles I have written, and add comments as appropriate. Thanks, Alun

I'd Love to Hear Your Comments. Thanks, Alun