Thailand is a monarchy headed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX and governed by a military junta that took power in May 2014. Although a constitutional system was established in 1932, the monarchy and military have continued to intervene periodically in politics. 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.
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The capital and largest city is Bangkok, which is Thailand’s political, commercial, industrial, and cultural hub. About 75–95% of the population is ethnically Tai, which includes four major regional groups: Central Thai, Northeastern Thai (Khon [Lao] Isan), Northern Thai (Khon Mueang); and Southern Thai. Thai Chinese, those of significant Chinese heritage, are 14% of the population,while Thais with partial Chinese ancestry comprise up to 40% of the population. Thai Malays represent 3% of the population, with the remainder consisting of Mons, Khmers and various “hill tribes”. The country’s official language is Thai and the primary religion is Buddhism, which is practised by around 95% of the population.
Thailand’s attractions include diving sites, sandy beaches, hundreds of tropical islands, nightlife, archaeological sites, museums, hill tribes, flora and bird life, palaces, Buddhist temples and several World Heritage sites. Many tourists follow courses during their stay in Thailand. Popular are classes in Thai cooking, Buddhism and traditional Thai massage. Thai national festivals range from Thai New Year Songkran to Loy Krathong. Many localities in Thailand also have their own festivals. Among the best-known are the “Elephant Round-up” in Surin, the “Rocket Festival” in Yasothon and the “Phi Ta Khon” festival in Dan Sai. Thai cuisine has become famous worldwide with its enthusiastic use of fresh herbs and spices.
Bangkok shopping malls offer a variety of international and local brands. Towards the north of the city, and easily reached by skytrain or underground, is the “Chatuchak Weekend Market”. It is possibly the largest market in the world, selling everything from household items to live, and sometimes endangered, animals. The “Pratunam Market” specialises in fabrics and clothing.
Ethical Travel Issues and advice
Orphanage Tourism: Increasing numbers of tourists visiting Thailand’s colourful markets and lush national parks want to experience the latest must-do activity on the tourist trail: a volunteering stint at an orphanage. However these good intentions are unwittingly feeding an industry that dupes poor parents into sending their children to bogus orphanages in order to extract money from well-meaning foreigners. It is a business model built on a double deception: the exploitation of poor families in rural Thailand and the manipulation of wealthy foreigners. In the worst cases, tourists may be unwittingly complicit in child trafficking.
Sex tourism: Sex tourism in Thailand can trace its origins to the presence of American military on rest and recreation leave during the Vietnam War from 1962. Today it is part of a burgeoning sex industry that includes prostitution, pornography and human trafficking. Although local men make up the majority of the purchasers of sex, foreign tourists also form a significant proportion.
Due to the hidden nature of child sexual abuse, reliable figures are hard to compile and cases difficult to document. Available figures estimate that some 30,000 to 40,000 children under eighteen years of age, not including foreign children, are exploited as prostitutes. But the number of Thai children in the sex industry is falling due to improvements in the economy, educational opportunities and legislation. Instead, many of the children being exploited are trafficked into Thailand from neighbouring border countries, or ethnic hill tribe children trafficked within the country from the north. This is being organised by criminal networks that operate much of the sex tourism industry and utilise pre-existing drug smuggling routes for trafficking people. According to the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report (2005), “widespread sex tourism in Thailand encourages trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation”. The US report also notes that while the government shows some signs of preventing trafficking via law enforcement and curbing corruption, it is still failing to protect child trafficking victims. This is because the government continues to treat them as illegal immigrants and deport them instead of providing them with protection or investigating their abuse. Since procuring children for sex is illegal in the country the transactions generally take place off-street in bars, brothels or hotel rooms. However, sex tourists have been known to approach and pick up children on the streets. Although pimps are not the norm in mediating for sex with women, they are often involved in the exploitation of children. Relatives and acquaintances also play a role in coercing or persuading children to ‘help’ the family economically by prostituting themselves. The main areas where sex tourism thrives, in addition to Bangkok and Patpong, are the beach resorts, especially in Phuket and Pattaya. Read more ECPAT briefing.
Ethical Photography: Travelling presents an opportunity to photograph in lots of different destinations and situations, but sometimes there may be culturally sensitive issues to think about before reaching for the camera or other photo-taking device. There are lots of people in the world who do not have clean water, electricity, schooling or enough to eat, let alone access to mobile telephones, the internet and printed media, so they have no idea where their photograph may end up or how it could be used. Sadly, in this day and age, child prostitution, child trafficking and other crimes against children are facilitated via the Internet, and photography can play an unwitting and innocent role. Photography and its use is no longer straight forward, so perhaps it is time to stop and think a little about the ethics of photography.
Taking photos of the friendly people of Thailand is a highlight for many travellers and photographers. Smiles are universal ways to engage, as is showing people the photo you just took of them. If you show an interest in their work or ask them questions, they’ll be happy to have their picture taken. In some touristy places it has become common for people to ask for money for their photos to be taken. Do as you wish, but a photo of someone you shared a laugh with may have a better lasting impression than one you paid for. Don’t forget the same holds true for any porters and guides that may help you along the way. Take an interest in them and you’ll be rewarded with more great photo opportunities.
To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles on ethical photography: https://tourismconcern.wpengine.com/ethical-photography/
Cultural Loss and Indigenous Tourism:
As we have extended the scope of our holidays into remote places, we now see ‘remote people’ as part of our holiday landscape. Our interest in other people’s cultures is not always sensitive. What are the implications, for example, of tourists viewing, filming & photographing tribal peoples who now demand payment in exchange for becoming models in their finery?
Performing for tourists has become an income earner for tribal groups all over the world. But the income comes with a price. To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles on Indigenous people and tourism:
Thailand’s wildlife is threatened by poaching, habitat loss, and an industry that sells wild animals as pets. The elephant is Thailand’s national symbol. Although there were 100,000 elephants in Thailand a century ago, the population of elephants in the wild 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, pileated gibbon and binturong.
Elephant rides: So-called elephant “joyrides” are anything but joyful for the elephants who are forced to give them. A PETA India–commissioned investigation of elephant training in Nepal revealed that elephants who are being used to give rides are physically and emotionally abused every step of the way.
When they are just 2 years old, baby elephants are torn away from their loving mothers and tied up out of reach. The frantic babies cry and struggle for days to reach their mothers, who are also tethered. Elephant calves are restrained during training for as long as 14 hours at a time with ropes that cause painful burns and with heavy chains.
Over and over again, calves are put through terrifying “desensitisation” sessions, in which trainers tie the elephants tightly to a pole, surround them, startle them with loud noises, hit them, prod them with sticks and wave flaming torches at them – often singeing the elephants’ skin.
Trainers routinely pierce the animals’ sensitive ears and yank on them with hooks in order to force elephants to walk a certain way. To control the elephants, restraints studded with iron nails, which dig into elephants’ skin and cause infections, are used on their feet. Barbed shackles are also frequently placed around the elephants’ legs during rides, with the other end of the shackles attached to the saddle so that riders can punish the elephants for any misstep. Trainers routinely beat elephants on the head with sticks to punish them for “mistakes,” leaving many elephants with open wounds.
Water Equity: The Tourism industry is the third major user of water in Thailand (after agriculture and industry) and there have already been water shortages in drought years, especially at the popular beach islands. Hotels therefore need to adopt efficient water-management practices, recycling and monitoring water use to eliminate wasteful practices. For tourism to be truly sustainable, its development and management must be based on a respect for human rights, including the right to water and sanitation for essential personal, domestic and livelihood needs. In many cases, tourism development is badly affecting the quality, availability and accessibility of freshwater for local people, amounting to an infringement of their water and sanitation rights. This is posing risks to community health and well-being, hampering socioeconomic mobility – particularly of women – harming livelihoods, threatening food security, and undermining the sustainability of the tourism sector itself.
- Don’t buy bottled mineral water on a trek.
- If water from streams, wells, cisterns and taps is not safe to drink: purify your water with iodine or a portable water filter and carry it in a reusable bottle.
- The easiest and cheapest way to ensure safe drinking water, is to treat it with iodine. If you don’t like the taste of iodine, bring flavoring vitamin C tablets to neutralize the iodine taste (note that you need to let the iodine do its work before you add the vitamin or flavoring).
- If possible, avoid lodges and teashops that use wood for fuel, and only take hot showers with solar-heated water.
- Don’t use detergents or toothpaste in or near watercourses, even if they are biodegradable.
- For personal washing, use biodegradable soap and a water container (or a lightweight, portable basin) at least 50m (160ft) away from the watercourse.
- Disperse the waste water widely to allow the soil to filter it fully.
- Wash cooking utensils 50m (160ft) away from watercourses using a scourer, sand or snow instead of detergent
Golf Courses; Land displacement, Deforestation & Environmental degradation:
The building of land-guzzling golf courses, particularly in Asia, has denied local people their land and their jobs, as investors have gobbled up land for the golf craze, while paying very little in compensation. There have been protests in a stream of countries, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, at the way in which golf courses have invaded protected forest areas, ancestral lands and farmlands.
The golfing craze has prompted the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for the Asia-Pacific to comment on the practice:
“Golf course construction has created widespread negative social, cultural and environmental impacts, particularly in the developing countries of the region. Typical impacts include forest destruction and air, water and soil pollution caused by the excessive use of chemicals.”
But golf courses do not just displace people and pollute the land: they consume vast quantities of water. In the welter of statistics, it has been claimed that one golf course in the USA uses enough water annually to provide at least 1200 people with their basic needs for a year.
Thailand can best be described as tropical and humid for the majority of the country during most of the year. The area of Thailand north of Bangkok has a climate determined by three seasons while the southern peninsular region of Thailand has only two. In northern Thailand the seasons are clearly defined. Between November and May the weather is mostly dry, however this is broken up into the periods November to February and March to May; the later has the higher relative temperatures.
The other northern season is from May to November and is dominated by the southwest monsoon, during which time rainfall in the north is at its heaviest.The southern region of Thailand really has only two seasons — the wet and the dry. These seasons do not run at the same time on both the east and west side of the peninsula. On the west coast the southwest monsoon brings rain and often heavy storms from April through to October, while on the east coast the most rain falls between September and December.
Overall the southern parts of Thailand get by far the most rain, with around 2,400 millimetres every year, compared with the central and northern regions of Thailand, both of which get around 1,400 millimetres.Generally speaking,the best time to visit Thailand is from November to February when the northeast monsoon is blowing cool, dry air that serves as a respite from the heat. During this cool season, the temperature ranges from 18 to 32 degrees Celsius in Bangkok, while in northern and northeast Thailand, temperatures can get quite cool with morning temperatures as low as eight to 12 degrees Celsius with the occasional 20 degree day.
Nights can be particularly chilly and at high altitudes the temperatures can and do drop below freezing.The summer period, or hot and dry season, is from March to June. At this time temperatures in Bangkok average around 34 degrees, but can often reach 40 degrees with humidity levels of 75%. Try and avoid April, unless you plan to be permanently submerged in the ocean, because this is the hottest month across the country. From July to October is the monsoon, when most of Thailand’s annual rainfall is accumulated and flooding can ravage the country. The humidity averages just under 90%, with temperatures averaging around 29 degrees Celsius in a very wet and rainy Bangkok.
Over the past few decades, Thailand’s dramatic economic growth brought about new environmental challenges in the once-agrarian economy. The country presently faces problems with air and water pollution, declining wildlife populations, deforestation, soil erosion, water scarcity, and hazardous waste issues.
Forest cover in Thailand has been greatly reduced as people convert forested land for agriculture. Forest cover fell drastically from 53% in 1961 to 25% in 1998. Wetlands have been converted to rice paddies and urban sprawl. With a government measures in place to prohibit logging, deforestation rates have dropped, but the impacts of deforestation are still being felt.
Industrial growth has created high levels of air pollution in Thailand. Vehicles and factories contribute to air pollution, particularly in Bangkok.
The most critical environmental problem that Thailand is facing presently is water pollution. Despite the annual southwest monsoon, Thailand is subject to drought, particularly the northeastern region. As of 2002, Thailand had available less water per person than any other country in Asia, and nearly one-third of its water was “unsuitable for human consumption. Non-potable water was also a result of increasing untreated domestic sewage, industrial waste water, and solid hazardous wastes
Thais are tolerant of individualism, but find comfort and security in being part of a group. Mai Pen Rai (never mind) is the Thai expression which characterizes the general focus of life – “it is to enjoy.” Thais are very proud of their cultural heritage and enjoy talking about it with visitors. Thais are proud that they have never been ruled by a Western power.
- When being introduced or greeting someone, men say Sawatdee-krap and women say Sawatdee-kah.
- Thais greet each other with a “wai.” Foreigners are not expected to initiate the wai gesture, but it is an insult not to return the wai.
- Wai (why) – a person places the palm of his or her hands together, with their fingers extended at chest level close to their body and bows slightly. The higher the hands are placed, the more respect is shown.
- A wai can mean “Hello,” “Thank you,” “I’m sorry,” or “Goodbye.” A wai is not used to greet children, servants, street vendors or laborers. Never return a wai to a child, waiter, clerk, etc. Simply nod and smile in response.
- Thais say “Where are you going” rather than “Hello.” A polite response is “Just down the street.”
- Thais address one another by first names and titles and reserve last names for very formal occasions and written communications.
- Foreigners are often addressed by their given names because it is easier for Thais; it does not imply familiarity. Thais will probably call you Mr. Joe or Mrs. Mary.
- Touching between people of the same sex is more common in Thailand than in many other Asian countries. However, touching someone of the opposite sex is taboo. Do not show affection in public.
- Never touch or pass anything over anyone’s head. The head is considered sacred in Thailand and must be respected.
- Never point your feet at anyone or use your feet to move anything or touch anyone. Feet are regarded as unclean and symbolically (as well as physically) the lowest part of the body.
- Do not put your hands in your pockets while talking to someone. Never put your arm over the back of the chair in which someone is sitting.
- A smile is often used for many different emotions. It may be an apology, a thank-you, a greeting, or to show embarrassment. Be aware: A Thai’s smiling assurance does not mean you will in fact get what you want, when you want it. It simply reflects the Thai appreciation of harmony and their “never mind” attitude.
- Don’t wave your hands about as you talk, giving Thais the impression that you are angry. Never pass anything with your left hand. Never point with your hand and never, never with one finger.
- Do not cross your legs in the presence of the elderly or monks.
- To beckon someone, extend your arm with the palm of your hand down and flutter your fingers up and down.
- Show great respect for the royal family. They are highly respected by most Thais. Stand in respect when the Thai national anthem is played.
- Step over the threshold, not on it, when going through a doorway. Thais believe a spirit resides in the threshold.
- Take off your shoes before entering a home, wat or building which has a Buddha image within.
- Use your right hand only for passing, eating, touching, etc.
- Never touch the head of a Thai or pass an object over it; the head is considered sacred in Thailand.
- Do not speak in a loud voice. Do not show your temper. Never criticize anyone publicly.
- Women should not enter a bot, the restricted area of a wat (temple), or touch a monk, hand him anything or sit next to or higher than him. When visiting a mosque, women should cover their body, wear slacks, a long skirt, a long sleeved blouse with a buttoned neck, and a headscarf.
Thai cuisine is a celebration of the fresh and fragrant. Whatever your reason for visiting, the abundance of delicious flavours will make you want to extend your stay. Don’t leave Thailand without tasting…
Phat Thai: Invented in the 1930s by a Chinese-Thai chef, this dish of thin rice noodles stir-fried with egg, tofu and shrimp, and seasoned with fish sauce, sugar, tamarind, vinegar and dried chilli has subsequently reigned as the poster boy for Thai cuisine.
Tom yam: This herb-forward broth is often referred to in English-language menus as ‘sour Thai soup’. The shrimp version – tom yam kung – is the most lauded, and justifiably so: the combination of fatty prawns and a tart/spicy soup result in an unusual but delicious and distinctly Thai amalgam.
Laap: Thailand’s northeast in one rustic dish; laap (also known as larb or larp) takes the form of minced meat seasoned with roasted rice powder, lime juice, fish sauce and fresh herbs. Be sure to eat it with sticky rice, short, fat grains of rice that are steamed and eaten by hand.
Khao soi: When in Thailand’s north, don’t miss this unique, curry-based noodle soup. Typically revolving around chicken or beef, the optional sides of lime, sliced shallots and crunchy pickled greens provide a pleasing contrast with the rich, spice-laden, coconut milk-based broth and soft, squiggly wheat-and-egg noodles.
Som tam: Although its origins lie in Thailand’s rural northeast, this dish of strips of crunchy unripe papaya bruised in a mortar and pestle with tomato, long beans, chilli, lime and fish sauce, has found a foothold in virtually every corner of the country. Couple the dish with a basket of sticky rice for a light yet piquant Thai meal.
Phat kaphrao: this street food staple combines meat flash-fried with holy basil (the eponymous kaphrao) and a generous helping of fresh chilli and garlic. Served over rice and often crowned with a fried egg, it’s the epitome of the Thai-style one dish meal.
Green curry: For Thai food novices, there’s probably no better starting point than this intersection of a piquant/herbal spice paste and rich coconut milk. Remember to do as the Thais and couple the curry with a plate of jasmine rice – it’s not meant to be eaten on its own as a soup.
Yam: As a side dish or drinking snack, you’re bound to encounter this ubiquitous Thai ‘salad’ that combines meat or seafood with a tart/spicy dressing and fresh herbs. A good introduction to the genre is yam wun sen, slinky glass noodles paired with minced pork and shrimp.
Kai yang: Thai-style grilled chicken owes its fame to the people of the country’s northeast, who marinate the bird in a unique mixture of fish sauce, coriander root and garlic. Couple the bird with sticky rice and green papaya salad, and you have one of Thailand’s most legendary meals.
Khao phat: For many Thai people, fried rice is comfort food. The variations are endless, and the dish is often the result of improvisation, but a staple at seafood restaurants across the country is the simple but delicious khao phat puu, rice fried with hearty chunks of crab and egg.
While the Thai language is the official language of Thailand, one could say English is its unofficial second language. As tourist and business visitors from around the world have traveled to Thailand, English naturally has become the common linguistic “currency” even while many of those visitors learned how to speak Thai. Consequently, population centers that host many foreigners, such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and the islands have many people who can speak both Thai and English quite well.
That said, visitors may experience difficulty picking up the Thai language as it is considerably different from many foreign languages. The Thai language features five tones: high, mid, low, rising, and falling, each of which changes the meaning of particular ‘words’. Visitors unfamiliar with tonal languages often have difficulty pronouncing even the most basic terms when learning to speak Thai, but with some practice visitors find that Thai people enjoy helping them with their pronunciation of the Thai language.
Written Thai is based on an alphabet adopted from the Khmers of Cambodia and is said to have become standardized during the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng during the Sukhothai period. The Thai alphabet consists of 44 consonants, 18 vowels, and 4 diphthong (tonal) notations. Learning to read Thai can be more complicated than learning to speak it as the pronunciation of written words does not follow a straightforward progression of letters and written Thai does not place spaces in between words. Fortunately, road signs are written in both Thai and English, and many tourist areas provide maps, menus, and other literature in both Thai and various other foreign languages.
One problem that does occur for foreigners trying to pronounce Thai words correctly is caused by the transliteration of Thai words into Romanized characters. An obvious example would be the island of Phuket, pronounced “poo-ket” rather than “foo-ket” as it would be pronounced in English. Furthermore, there is no official standard for the transliteration of words and thus many Thai words are spelled differently on different maps or street signs.
While roughly 95% of the Thai people are practitioners of Theravada Buddhism, the official religion of Thailand, religious tolerance is both customary in Thailand and protected by the constitution. By its very nature however, Buddhism, which is based on the teachings of the Buddha, “the enlightened one” (nee Siddhartha Gautama), is a compassionate and tolerant religion, the aim of which is the alleviation of suffering. Consequently, Thai people are very respectful of the religious beliefs of others and are very open toward discussing their Buddhist values with visitors. In fact, there are many opportunities in Thailand to visit Buddhist temples to learn about or study Buddhism and perhaps to learn to meditate.
Religion in Thailand pervades many aspects of Thai life and senior monks are highly revered; it is not uncommon to see their images adorning walls of businesses or homes or upon ornaments inside of taxi cabs. In many towns and villages the neighborhood wat (temple) is the heart of social and religious life. Buddhist holidays occur regularly throughout the year (particularly on days with full moons) and many Thai people go to the wat on these and other important days to pay homage to the Buddha and give alms to monks in order to make merit for themselves.
Meditation, one of the primary practices of Buddhism, is a means of self reflection in order to identify the causes of individual desire and ultimately alleviate ones suffering. Visitors can learn the fundamentals of this practice at a number of wats across the kingdom. Some temples, particularly in Chiang Mai, allow visitors to chat with monks in order to gain general knowledge about Buddhism or to study Buddhism more seriously.
While Theravada Buddhism may technically be considered a philosophy rather than a religion (there is no ‘God’) Thai Buddhism is infused with many spiritual beliefs which are likely the result of lingering animist and Hindu beliefs from centuries earlier. Most Thai homes and places of business feature a ‘spirit house’ just outside the building, where offerings are made to appease spirits that might otherwise inhabit their homes or workplaces. Furthermore, Buddhist monks are often brought to new homes and businesses to ‘bless them’, and Thai people frequently light incense and make prayers to both Buddha images and a host of Hindu gods whose shrines are located throughout Bangkok and the countryside.
The next largest religion in Thailand, Islam, is practiced by only about 4% of the population; the majority of Thai Muslims live in the most southerly provinces near the Malaysian border. Other religions in Thailand include Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Christianity, which are generally practiced by those living in Bangkok, where a multi-cultural population includes citizens of Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and European descent.