Thailand: Mystery and Majesty
Thailand is about 500,000 square kilometers (198,455 square miles) in size, about the size of France. From north to south it measures 1,650 kilometers and from east to west 800 kilometers. The country is located on the Indo-China peninsular, sharing borders with Burma to the west and north, Laos to the east and north-east, Cambodia to the east and Malaysia to the south. It stretches from forested mountains with narrow fertile valleys to the north and a dry plateau bordering the Mekong River in the north-east. Across the fertile alluvial basin of ChaoPhraya River, where the majority of the population lives, to a long finger of beaches and rain forest down the Istmus of Kra and Malay Peninsula in the south.
The Thai people originated in southern China, some 4,500 years ago. The first notable king of the Thais, Mengrai the Great, built a prosperous society in what is now northern Thailand. He founded the towns of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in the late 13th century. Buddhism, which probably came from India, was important by then in Thai society. Mengrai was killed by lightening (another king was eaten by a crocodile, and King Rama VIII was found mysteriously shot dead in bed in 1946). The first great age of Thai culture took place in Sukhotai, but this was eclipsed by the kingdom of Ayutthaya, which was founded in about 1350. This came to be known as Siam. By the 17th century, it has been estimated that Ayutthaya had a larger population than most European capitals of the time. The city was charming as well as exotic. A fateful 4-year war against Burma in the 1760’s led to pillaging and vandalizing of the city, which became a ghost town. A new capital was founded at Thon Buri, directly across the river from Bangkok. The present Chakri dynasty was founded at the time and all kings have since carried the name Rama, adopted from the name of the Hindu God Rama. Bangkok became the country’s fourth capital due to its better defensible position.
The achievements of King Mongkut Rama four have been immortalised in the movie “The King and I” (banned in Thailand for being disrespectful to Royalty). The country was led into the 20th century by his son, King Chulalongkorn Rama 5, who abolished slavery, established schools, a museum, a national library and Siam’s first Post Office.
The country sent troops to France to join the allied cause in 1917 (Rama VI had been educated at Cambridge and served for a time in the British Army). One legacy of this king was the decree that all Thais should have a family name. Even today, Thais are known by their first names, while surnames are only used for more or less formal purposes. In 1932, a constitutional monarchy was imposed, with the powers of the monarchy limited.
The population of Thailand is around 69 million, about 85% of whom live in rural areas. At least 80% of the population are of Thai stock. There are a number of minority groups in Thailand today, the principle one being Chinese – about 3 million. Of course, almost all Thai families have Chinese blood in them. Over 90% of the population are Buddhist, with 4% Muslim. You will find Thai people to be very friendly, hospitable, helpful, religious and unfailingly loyal to the Royal Family.