Buddha-Dharma-Sangha History



“Thailand, pronounced TY land, is a tropical country in Southeast Asia. The people of Thailand are called Thai. Most are farmers and live in small, rural villages. However, Thailand has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and its urban centers have expanded rapidly. Almost 6 million people live in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital and largest city.

Thailand is the only nation in Southeast Asia that has never been ruled by a Western power. The Thai people date their history from A.D. 1238, when the Sukhothai Kingdom was founded in what is now Thailand. For most of its history, the country was called Siam. In 1939, it officially adopted the name Thailand.


National government. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, a form of government in which the constitution limits the power of the king or queen. The nation’s Constitution provides for a monarch, a prime minister, and a legislature called the National Assembly. The monarch has an advisory role as head of state, and the prime minister heads the government.

The National Assembly consists of the House of Representatives with 500 members and the Senate with 200 members. The people of Thailand directly elect 400 house members. The remaining 100 members are elected through proportional representation. This system grants political parties a share of seats in proportion to their share of the total vote cast in the election. House members serve four-year terms. The senators are directly elected by the people of Thailand. Senators serve six-year terms. The House of Representatives selects the prime minister, who is then formally appointed by the monarch. The prime minister selects the Cabinet. The maximum number of Cabinet members is 48.

Local government. Thailand is divided into more than 70 provinces. The provinces are subdivided into more than 600 districts, about 6,600 units of local government called tambons, and about 60,000 villages. Each province has a governor, and every district has a district officer. These officials are appointed by the minister of the interior. Thai villages range in size from a few hundred to a few thousand people. Each village elects a headman to be its leader. The people within each tambon then select from among the village headmen a kamnan, or chief administrator, for their tambon.

Politics. Thai citizens 20 years old or older have the right to vote. Thai political parties, however, have often come to power through a military coup (revolt against the ruling party) rather than through popular elections. Traditionally, Thai political parties have been organized around leaders rather than common political philosophies, and few parties have had lasting strength.

Courts. The Supreme Court, the highest court, consists of a chief justice and 21 judges. The entire court meets only for special cases. The Court of Appeals, the second highest court, reviews decisions made by lower courts. A panel called the Judicial Commission chooses all Thai judges. The judges are approved by the prime minister and formally appointed by the king.

The armed forces of Thailand consist of an army, a navy, and an air force. The forces have a total membership of about 300,000. Men from 21 to 30 years old may be drafted for at least two years of military duty. Women may serve on a voluntary basis.

                The people 

Population and ancestry. Most of Thailand’s people live in rural areas. Bangkok is the country’s capital and largest city. It has a population of nearly 6 million people. Thailand has four other cities with populations of more than 200,000. They are Khon Kaen, Nakhon Ratchasima, Nanthanburi, and Songkhla.

Most of Thailand’s people belong to the Thai ethnic group. Chinese people make up the second largest population group. The next largest groups consist of Malays and Khmers. Small ethnic groups include the Hmong, the Karen, and other isolated hill peoples in the far north and northwest, and a number of Indians and Vietnamese.

Way of life. Each Thai village has a wat (Buddhist temple-monastery), which serves as the religious and social center of the community. Village life in Thailand traditionally has been organized around religious and agricultural rituals and festivals. But now radio and television also have a strong influence.

Since the early 1960’s, large numbers of Thai–especially young adults–have moved from rural areas to cities in search of jobs and educational opportunities. As a result, a large educated middle class has emerged in Bangkok and other cities. But Thai cities have had to cope with serious problems caused by rapid population growth. Such problems include crowded living conditions, traffic jams, pollution, the growth of prostitution, and the spread of AIDS.

Most Thai people wear the same clothing styles worn in Western countries. For special or formal occasions, however, they often wear traditional Thai clothing made of such fabrics as Thai silk, Hmong embroidery, and batik (a special dye process).

Housing. Most Thai villagers live in traditional wood houses that are on stilts. The houses are built 7 to 10 feet (2 to 3 meters) above the ground mainly for protection against floods. In towns and cities, houses are typically made of stucco or concrete and are not on stilts. Middle-class Thai, especially in Bangkok, live in apartments, condominiums, or large developments of single-family homes. Some shop owners reside above their shops. The government provides limited housing for the urban poor, many of whom end up living in slums.

Food. Thai people eat rice with almost every meal. Favorite foods to accompany the rice include hot, spicy stews called curries; salads of meat, fish, and vegetables; stir-fried dishes; and broiled or fried fish with sauces. Flavorful, spicy Thai food has become popular in many parts of the world.

Recreation. Thai people prize the art of sanuk, or having fun. The national sport is Muay Thai (Thai boxing), also known as kickboxing, in which opponents fight with their feet as well as their hands. In another popular sport, called takraw, the players try to keep a ball made of rattan (woven palm stems) in the air by using their heads, legs, and feet. Many Thai enjoy gambling on the lottery, cockfights, and fightingfish contests.

Languages. Thai, the language spoken by almost all people in Thailand, has four main dialects. The Central Thai dialect is the official language and is taught in the schools. Many people in Thailand speak the Central Thai dialect in addition to their own regional or ethnic dialect. Many people also speak Malay or Chinese. English is taught in many schools and is often used in business and government affairs.

Religion. About 95 percent of the Thai people are Buddhists. Generally, Buddhists believe that people can obtain perfect peace and happiness by freeing themselves from worldly desires. Most Thai people follow the Theravada (Way of the Elders) tradition, an ancient form of Buddhism that emphasizes the virtues of monastic life. According to custom, many Thai men become monks for at least a short period, from about one week to several months. They wear yellow robes and lead lives of poverty, meditation, and study.

Most Chinese in Thailand follow Confucianism in addition to practicing other religions. The majority of Thailand’s Malays are Muslims. Hinduism is the main religion among Indians in Thailand. Only about 1 percent of the nation’s people are Christians.

Education. Thai law requires children to attend school from age 7 to 14. The government provides free public education, but some students attend private schools. Only a small percentage of Thai students continue schooling beyond the required years. Thailand has 15 universities, several large institutes of technology, dozens of teachers’ colleges, and numerous vocational colleges. Almost all of Thailand’s adult population can read and write. For the country’s literacy rate, see LITERACY (table: Literacy rates for selected countries).

The arts in Thailand are greatly influenced by Buddhism. The country’s Buddhist temples display some of the finest Thai architecture. The image of Buddha appears in many Thai paintings and sculptures. Modern Thai painting includes traditional religious themes and international styles.

Traditional Thai literature was written and performed for royalty and consisted of classical dramas and epic poems. Today, Thai classical dancers wear spectacular costumes and act out such traditional legends in performances called khon drama.

                The land 

Thailand has four main land regions: (1) the Mountainous North, (2) the Khorat Plateau, (3) the Central Plain, and (4) the Southern Peninsula.

The Mountainous North. Mountains occupy part of northern Thailand and extend along the country’s western border to the Malay Peninsula. Inthanon Mountain, Thailand’s highest peak, is in this region. The mountain rises 8,514 feet (2,595 meters) above sea level. Forests of evergreen trees and some broadleaf trees, such as teak, cover most of the region. The mountains are broken by rivers running south. These rivers form narrow, fertile valleys where farmers grow rice and other crops.

The Khorat Plateau, also known as Isan, lies in the northeastern part of Thailand and makes up about one-third of the country’s land area. Mountain ranges separate the plateau from central Thailand to the west and Cambodia to the south. The Mekong River forms the region’s northern and eastern boundaries. Two other rivers, the Chi and the Mun, also run through the region. But generally, the area is dry with sandy soil that makes poor farmland.

The Central Plain extends from the foothills of the north to the Gulf of Thailand. Its soil is so fertile that farmers raise more rice there than anywhere else in Thailand. Four rivers–the Nan, Ping, Wang, and Yom–unite in the plain and become the Chao Phraya River. The Chao Phraya, Thailand’s main river, provides both irrigation and transportation.

The Southern Peninsula shares its northwestern border with Myanmar and extends south to Malaysia. This region of Thailand consists mainly of jungle and mountains. Narrow plains run along the coast. Fishing, rubber production, and tin mining in the region contribute much to the Thai economy.

Animal life. Thailand’s forests once abounded with elephants, tigers, wild pigs, deer, crocodiles, king cobras and other snakes, and many varieties of birds. But since the mid-1900’s, many species of wildlife in Thailand have become endangered. These animals are threatened with extinction, in part because thousands have been killed for profit. In addition, agriculture and industry have destroyed many of Thailand’s forests. Some Thai families make pets of such wild animals as monkeys, catlike mammals called civets, and squirrels.


Thailand has a tropical climate. Most of the country has three seasons–a hot, dry season from March to May; a hot, wet period from June to October; and a cool, dry season from November to February. Bangkok has an average temperature of 77 °F (25 °C) in December and 86 °F (30 °C) in April. The mountain areas are cooler.

From late May to October, winds called monsoons cause heavy rains throughout Thailand. The Southern Peninsula region may receive more than 100 inches (254 centimeters) of rain in one year. Bangkok has an average annual rainfall of 55 inches (140 centimeters).


The Thai economy is based on free enterprise, in which businesses operate largely free of government control. About 65 percent of the nation’s workers make their living by farming or fishing, and only about 10 percent work in manufacturing. However, manufactured goods contribute more to the national income than agricultural products do. Government, education, trade, transportation, and other service industries employ large numbers of people in Thailand. Other Thai people work in construction and mining. Forestry, especially the harvesting of teak, was formerly important to Thailand’s economy. But the government banned logging in 1988 because too many trees had been removed.

Agriculture. Farmland makes up about 45 percent of the nation’s land. The chief crop is rice. Other leading farm products include cassava (a potatolike plant used to make tapioca), corn, cotton, jute (a fiber plant used in making rope and gunnysacks), pineapples, rubber, silk, soybeans, sugar cane, and tobacco. Farms in Thailand average about 10 acres (4 hectares), and about 75 percent of the farmers own their land.

Manufacturing first gained importance in Thailand in the 1970’s, when the Thai government began expanding industries that would increase international trade, particularly with Japan. Thailand’s main manufactured products include automobiles, cement, clothing, electronic goods, food products, plastics, and textiles.

Fishing has always been a mainstay of the Thai economy. Many farmers raise fish in ponds. Commercial fisheries in the south and southeast fish by trawling, pulling a funnel-shaped net through the sea. Fisheries also raise shrimp and other shellfish for sale worldwide.

Mining. Zinc is Thailand’s most valuable mineral. In addition, Thailand has copper, feldspar, kaolin, lead, lignite, limestone, and tin. Large amounts of natural gas are located under the Gulf of Thailand. Rubies and sapphires are mined in central Thailand, and many other precious stones are brought in from Cambodia and Myanmar.

Tourism contributes greatly to Thailand’s national income. Millions of tourists visit each year to see the country’s magnificent temples, interesting historical sites, beaches, and exciting night life.

International trade. Chief exports of Thailand include clothing, electronic goods, fish products, machinery, precious stones, rice, rubber, and textiles. The nation’s major imports include automobile parts, chemicals, fertilizers, fuels, iron and steel, and machinery. Thailand carries on brisk trade with many nations. Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the United States rank as its main trading partners.

Transportation in Thailand includes extensive road and railroad systems. Bus lines reach nearly every part of the country, and the state-owned railroads fan out in all directions from Bangkok. Rivers and canals in Thailand provide local transportation for passengers and cargo. Bangkok is the country’s largest and busiest port. The city struggles with major traffic problems caused by rapid population growth.

Bangkok International Airport provides daily flights between Thailand and other Asian nations, the United States, various European countries, and Australia. Several other Thai cities have international as well as domestic air service.

Communication. Thailand has dozens of daily newspapers, many of which are published in Bangkok. Most of the newspapers are published in the Thai language. Several are in Chinese, and a few are in English. The newspapers are privately owned. However, the government runs nearly all of the television and radio stations. Telephone services link most cities and towns, but many rural residents still lack phones.


People have lived in what is now Thailand for thousands of years. From about the A.D. 400’s to the 700’s, people known as the Tai probably began migrating from what is now southern China into mainland Southeast Asia. There, the Tai came in contact with Mon and Khmer peoples who had long lived in the region. The Tai adopted Buddhism from the Mon and many Hindu practices from the Khmer. Foreigners began calling this region Syam as early as the 1000’s. Later, the area became known as Siam and its people Siamese, still hundreds of years before the country officially adopted that name.

Early kingdoms. The people of Thailand date their history from the founding of a kingdom called Sukhothai (pronounced soo KOH ty) in 1238. The Tai people who had established the kingdom began calling themselves the Thai, meaning free. Sukhothai’s most famous ruler, King Ramkhamhaeng (pronounced rahm kahm HANG), reigned from about 1279 to 1317 and greatly expanded the Thai territory. Historians also credit Ramkhamhaeng with developing a writing system for the Thai language. A form of his alphabet is still used today.

In 1350, the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya (pronounced ah YOOT tah yah) was established. The capital, also called Ayutthaya, sat on an island in the Chao Phraya River, an ideal place for trade and defense. Within a century, Ayutthaya became more powerful than the kingdom of Sukhothai.

European contact began for the Thai in 1511, when Portuguese traders settled in Ayutthaya. During the next century, Dutch, English, Spanish, and French traders and missionaries entered the area. Ayutthayan kings also allowed settlements of Chinese and Japanese and sent government representatives to countries as distant as France and the Netherlands. However, many Thai became alarmed at the foreigners’ growing influence in their kingdom. Partly as a result, Ayutthaya began to limit its relations with the West after 1688.

Throughout much of its over 400-year rule, Ayutthaya was at war with its neighbors–the Khmer to the east and the Burmese to the west. The Burmese, Ayutthaya’s chief enemy, destroyed the capital in early 1767.

The Bangkok era. In late 1767, a military commander named Taksin drove out the Burmese and established a new Thai capital at Thon Buri, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. Taksin brought to the region many Chinese traders who helped rebuild the country’s economy. After Taksin was overthrown in 1782, a general known as Chaophraya Chakri became king and ruled for 27 years. The new king took the name Rama I and established the Chakri dynasty (line of rulers), which still reigns today. During his reign, the capital was moved across the Chao Phraya River to Bangkok.

Modernization gained speed under two of the Chakri dynasty’s most influential monarchs, King Mongkut (pronounced mawng KOOT) and King Chulalongkorn (pronounced chu lah LAWNG kawn). Mongkut, also known as Rama IV, ruled from 1851 to 1868. Before taking the throne, Mongkut had served as a monk for 27 years and had led a movement to reform Thai Buddhism. He also studied Western languages and science and, as king, appointed Western advisers to his court. The musical comedy The King and I (1951) is based on accounts of life in the Thai court written by a British governess whom Mongkut hired to teach his children. The musical gives a distorted picture of Mongkut that many Thai people consider offensive.

Mongkut signed many treaties with Western powers, greatly expanding trade and other relations that had been severely limited for over 100 years. The Western powers established several colonies in Southeast Asia. Siam was never colonized, but Mongkut was forced to grant the Western countries extraterritorial rights. These rights allowed them to set up courts of law for their people in Siam.

King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), who reigned from 1868 to 1910, is regarded as one of Thailand’s greatest kings. With the help of several of his brothers in key government positions, Chulalongkorn furthered Thai modernization. He oversaw a complete reorganization of the government, which included establishing a cabinet to help the monarch rule. He also abolished slavery in Siam, introduced a modern school system, and built railroads and telegraphs linking the country.

King Vajiravudh (pronounced wah jee rah WOOT), or Rama VI, succeeded Chulalongkorn in 1910. Under him, Siam entered World War I in 1917 to help France, Britain, and the other Allies against Germany and Austria-Hungary. In return for Siam’s support, Western powers gradually agreed to give up their extraterritorial rights. When King Vajiravudh died in 1925, the throne passed to his brother Prajadhipok (pronounced prah JAH tee pohk), or Rama VII.

Changes in government. In mid-1932, a group of Thai, many of whom had been educated in Europe, revolted against King Prajadhipok. Pridi Phanomyong (pronounced pree dee pah nawm yawng), a lawyer, and Phibun Songkhram (pronounced pee boon sawng krahm), an artillery officer, led the revolt. They forced the king to change the government from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in late 1932, thus limiting the power of the king.

After the coup, a civilian government initially ruled Thailand. But from 1933 to 1938, the military increased its power. King Prajadhipok gave up the throne in 1935 to his nephew, Ananda Mahidol (pronounced ah NAHN dah mah hee dawn), Rama VIII. Phibun became prime minister in 1938 and ran a military government. The country’s name was changed to Thailand in 1939.

In World War II (1939-1945), Germany, Japan, and other Axis powers fought the Allies, who included Britain, China, the Soviet Union, and the United States. In 1941, Japan invaded Thailand. Japan planned to use Thailand as a base to attack Burma (now Myanmar), Malaya (now part of Malaysia), and Singapore, three countries then under British rule. At first, Thailand resisted. But Phibun decided to cooperate, and Japan took over Thailand’s harbors, airports, and railroads.

As the war progressed, the Thai people began to resent Japanese control. Thailand’s external trade halted, and the Thai economy suffered. In 1942, some Thai officials began a Free Thai Movement to work against the Japanese. With the support of Allied countries, the Free Thai gained influence within the Thai government. The National Assembly forced Phibun out of office in 1944.

Opposition to Communism. From 1944 to 1947, Thailand had civilian-led governments. The country’s name was changed back to Siam for a few years after World War II ended. In 1946, King Ananda Mahidol was found dead of a gunshot wound. Some people believe his death was an accident, and others believe he was assassinated. His brother Bhumibol Adulyadej (pronounced poo mee PAWN ah dool YAH deh), also called Rama IX, became king.

Thailand came under military dictatorship from 1948 to 1973. During this time, Phibun and a series of other military leaders ruled. Worldwide, this period marked the height of the Cold War, an intense rivalry between Communist and non-Communist nations. Under military rule, Thailand increased its opposition to Communism and strengthened its alliance with the United States. The United States provided Thailand with much economic and military aid, and Thailand allowed the United States to use military bases on Thai territory. The United States used these bases to attack Communist forces in North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos during the Vietnam War (1957-1975). Also during this war, Thailand sent troops to fight on the side of the United States.

In 1967, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN promotes economic, cultural, political, and social cooperation among its members.

Democracy gains strength. In 1973, university students in Thailand led a successful revolt against the Thai government. They demanded democratic rights and an end to military dictatorship. For the next three years, Thailand experimented with parliamentary democracy. However, in October 1976, the military again seized power after violent student demonstrations took place in Bangkok. Numerous students were killed, and many others fled to the jungle, where they joined Communist forces. From 1976 through 1979, the military ruled Thailand, but with more openness to democratic policies.

From 1980 to 1991, Thailand’s governments were democratically elected, but the military maintained much power. General Prem Tinsulanonda (pronounced praym TIHN soo lah nawn) became prime minister in 1980 and continued Thailand’s openness to democracy. About a million refugees had fled to Thailand from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Prem’s government provided Thailand with the political stability the country needed to shelter these newcomers until many of them returned home in the early 1990’s.

In February 1991, the military took control of the government, dissolved the National Assembly, and suspended the Constitution. Thailand adopted a new constitution later that year. In March 1992, a group of promilitary parties won control of the National Assembly in parliamentary elections, and a general was appointed prime minister. Many Thai protested this appointment. New elections took place in September, and the leader of a group of civilian parties became prime minister. Since then, civilian leaders have controlled the government.

Recent developments. Thailand suffered a severe economic slump in 1997. The value of its currency fell sharply, and its stock market plunged. In 1997 and 1998, the government adopted a number of reforms aimed at easing the crisis and improving the economy. By the early 2000’s, the economy resumed modest growth.”

Contributors: Charles Keyes, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology and International Studies, University of Washington.

Jane Keyes, M.A., Author and editor.


How does Buddhism influence the arts in Thailand?

What are some popular Thai dishes?

How did Mongkut change the culture of Thailand?

What types of problems have Thai cities faced?

What industry contributes most to the Thai national income?

How have political parties most often come to power in Thailand?

What is a wat? What is batik? Muay Thai? Sanuk?

What is Thailand’s major rice-producing area?

What are Thailand’s chief minerals? Manufactured products?

How do most Thai people earn a living?

                Additional resources

Brittan, Dolly.The People of Thailand. Rosen Pub. Group, 1997. Younger readers.

Cornwel-Smith, Philip, ed. Thailand. D K Pub., 1997.

LePoer, Barbara L., ed.Thailand: A Country Study. 6th ed. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989.


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Mahayana and Hinayana-Theravada Compared

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Mahayana and Hinayana-Theravada Compared.

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