With a booming, and ever-growing tourist industry, Thailand has become a well known hotspot for travellers, party seekers, and sex tourists. Boasting over 22 million international guests in 2012, and generating around 11 billion a year for the Thai economy, tourism has hit Thailand hard, for better-or-worse.
Whilst revellers party on at the full moon party, a tribe is busy performing an ancient moon rite deep in the jungles of Chaing-Mai. For every person taking the sky-train in Bangkok, there is another walking mindfully up a mountain, and for every sex tourist getting his wallet hit harder than a nomorerack scam, there is a celibate monk worshipping in a forgotten temple.
Behind it’s growing image as a place of booze, sun, and casual sex, lies a beautiful and mystical country, rich in culture, and spirituality, and a history of political turmoil.
There are many theories as to the origin of the Thai people; it was previously presumed that Thai’s originated in Szechuan in China, and migrated down to Thailand around 4500 years ago. However, new theories and archeological evidence now suggests that they have always lived in Thailand, and later migrated to various other parts of Asia.
The country as we recognize it, then named Siam, rose in 1782 with King Rama I, under the Chakri dynasty; a dynasty which still rules there today. It was at this time that the modern day capital of Bangkok (current population 7.2million) was founded.
From this point Siam began to gradually westernise. The reign of Rama IV from 1804, saw a deliberate initiation of Thailand’s modernisation, and the subsequent kings continued the changes, hiring western advisors for commerce, building modern railway networks, and introducing a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary government.
It wasn’t until 1939 that Siam changed it’s name to Thailand.
The word “Thai” means free. So Thailand translates as “land of the free.” But the political turmoil of the country did not stop there, and the land of the free has continued to see trouble all the way up until the current day, with a cycle of riots and protests, military rules, government ousting, and collapsed replacement governments. The country is still locked in a battle for political stability.
Despite this political turmoil the country is greatly religious. The modern day Thai culture has incorporated cultural aspects from India, China, and Cambodia, and is greatly influenced by Buddhism, Hinduism, Animism, and Spiritualism.
The population consist of around 95% Theravada Buddhists, with only 5% Muslims, and 1% Christians.
It is clear to the eye, from the thousands of temples scattered across the country, that Buddhism is the main religion. In fact, there are over 40,000 buddhist temples, of which nearly 34,000 are still in use. All over the country an aware observer can spot signs of the spiritual nature of the locals; from their temples and statues, to the presence of monks, to the more unusual practices such as the offerings made to “spirit houses”; small structures which are said to contain household spirits.
Theravada Buddhism is believed to be one of the oldest forms of buddhism, and literally translates as “the Teaching of the Elders”. The religion is very much alive in Thailand, and the government supports and oversees the religion, offering many benefits to monks.
Thai culture is not all politics and religion, although it is obvious that Buddhism in particular is heavily fused with the culture and the many Thai customs.
Thai people often greet each other with a prayer like gesture and a slight bow of the head, accompanied by a serene smile, which is seen to represent a welcoming disposition. Disputes, and displays of anger are not accepted, and issues are best resolved with a smile and the commonly heard phrase “mai pen rai”, which translates as “it doesn’t matter”.
Respect is very important in Thai culture; respect for elders, for family, for monks, and for the buddha. It can be disrespectful to touch somebody’s head, or to point your feet at someone, because in Thai culture the head is the most important and sacred part of the body, and the feet the most lowly.
Much of the art is traditionally Buddhist imagery, and much of the literature is heavily influenced by Indian Hinduism. Thai holidays, too, are tied in with religion, and include full moon event of Loi Krathong where a decorated raft is sent down a river to represent the letting go of grudges and angers.
The tourism industry in Thailand is certainly changing the country. Along with it’s economic benefits it can bring with it a foreign disregard for the countries’ customs, traditions, history, and spirituality. It is important that if we visit a country like Thailand, which faces a delicate balance of maintaining ancient traditions in a modern world, we visit with an intention to learn, to understand, and to respect the people and the culture.