Despite the ethnic diversity of Thai people (including ethnic Chinese, the “Lao” and “Khmer” from Isaan, hill-tribes near the Burmese border in the North and the Thai-Malay muslims in the deep south) there are two main unifying factors that define Thai identity. The main factor is the deep respect Thai people from all over the country pay to the King and the monarchy; the second factor is a unique and common language.
Regardless of the variety of regional and ethnic dialects found all over the Kingdom, standardized Thai language is the principal language of education throughout the country, and every Thai, regardless of his ethnic or educational background, speaks Thai. For a basic introduction to Thai language, or just to pick up some useful phrases, please visit our extra Thai Language pages.
95% of Thai people are Buddhists – a higher percentage than in any other country – and most aspects of modern Thai culture have been heavily influenced by “Theravada” Buddhism. Other important influences on modern Thai culture include ancestor worship and an ancient animistic belief. This is most evidently reflected in the humble respect all Thai people pay to images of deceased family members, and in the pre-Buddhist tradition of “spirit houses”.
A common sight in the early morning hours, usually around 6 a.m., are orange-robed Buddhist monks who collect alms from devote worshippers waiting in front of their houses to receive a blessing. A visit to Buddhist temple (wat in Thai language) is a definite “must” for every first-time visitor to Thailand, especially when you’re staying in Bangkok or the ancient Siamese cities of Sukhothai or Ayutthaya.
Traditionally, Thais have a strong sense of social hierarchy, with seniority being a basic concept of traditional Thai culture. This is most evidently reflected in the respect Thai people pay to elder and senior members of society, and the traditional Thai greeting which is not a handshake but the so-called wai.
A wai consists of a bow of the chin towards the chest with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion. The younger, or socially lower-ranking, person is always expected to wai first in order to show respect. The lower his social status is, the lower he will bow his head. Respect and courtesy are then demonstrated by how high or low someone holds his hands and how low he will bow his head.
As foreigners are not really expected to wai first anyway and it’s easy to make a mistake or even a complete fool of yourself, e.g., if you wai the receptionist at your hotel or the cashier in a supermarket, a wai should generally be avoided by tourists not familiar with its subtle degrees, or only be returned.
The Thai family, the traditional cornerstone of Thai society, is also hierarchical in structure, with the parents at the very top of the pyramid. Especially if you’re in a relationship with a Thai woman you will sooner or later learn that her family, in particular her parents, will always have priority.
Thailand is also known as the Land of Smiles, justifiably so. But while the proverbial Thai smile – by foreigners often perceived as double-faced or “plain bullshit” – does not necessarily indicate a friendly feeling but may also be used to cover emotional pain or embarrassment, the Thai words sanook (“fun”) and sabai (means as much as “feeling good”) ultimately describe two characteristic features of Thai mentality.
If you’re a stereotypical Thai, things that don’t promise to be sanook are always better avoided or put off as they might impact your cushy feeling of sabai sabai. Needless to say that Thais don’t like “problems”, as little as they may be, and naturally avoid all kind of disputes and “serious” discussions that tend to give the average Thai a “headache”. Cogitation isn’t good for the Thai soul either, so rather than making long-range plans, most Thais will be absolutely happy just to “live for today”.
As Thai society is traditionally non-confrontational, you’re also advised to avoid confrontations and aggressive behaviour in public as in most cases it just wouldn’t help (or might even provoke a violent response). If you should be unsatisfied with the room service in your hotel, for example, an angry complaint to the room maid or manager would probably not get you any further but simply earn you disrespect. In the best case he would just say “solly” and leave you with a broad smile on his lips.
Now you may also have a guess how many meanings the ambiguous Thai smile can have?
Having said that the concept of sanook (“fun”) describes one of the most typical features of Thai mentality, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Thai people are literally crazy for all sorts of parties and festivals.
Most holidays are related to the monarchy or Buddhism, others have just been adapted from Western countries. Not all but many Thai holidays are official holidays, so banks, government and administrative offices will be closed for a day. When a national holiday falls on a Saturday or a Sunday, the following Monday will be declared a (substitution) holiday as well. Dates of religiously inspired holidays, or the traditional Chinese New Year, may vary from year to year according to the Chinese lunar calendar.
The most famous Thai festivals are probably the infamous water festival of Songkran in April and the slightly more contemplative Loy Krathong festival in October or November.
Songkran is Thailand’s traditional New Year festival. It usually starts on April 13 and marks the beginning of the long-awaited rainy season following months of drought.
Also known as Thailand’s water festival, Songkran is mainly wet, and you simply can’t help getting soaked wherever you go in the heat of the day. From dawn till dusk, locals and tourists alike will roam the streets with containers of water and high-pressure water guns, throwing sometimes ice-cool water or water mixed with talc at everyone passing by.
While traditionally this throwing of water was introduced as a symbolic method to wash off the sins of the year gone-by and to pay respect to the elderly, Songkran as it is celebrated nowadays, especially in Thailand’s main tourist areas, has only little to do with its original cultural roots and has pretty much degenerated to the “world’s largest water battle”.
Traditionally Songkran is celebrated for three days only (April 13-15) but in some parts of the country it has been extended to as long as a full week, e.g., Songkran in Patatya usually lasts from April 13-19.
Loy Krathong, on the other hand, is a rather contemplative and romantic festival which is celebrated on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar. This is either in late October or in November.
A krathong is a small raft or decorated basket, typically made from a section of a banana tree trunk and decorated with elaborately-folded banana leaves, incense sticks, flowers and candles. Modern krathongs are often made of styrofoam but increasingly get banned for environmental reasons. The Thai word loy means “to float”, so Loy Krathong could be translated as “float a raft/decorated basket”.
During the evening hours, Thai people gather at riversides, lakes or at the sea in order to release (loy) their krathongs. This is accompanied by fireworks and the releasing of small hot balloons, which light the nightly sky above the waters. Beauty contests are also a regular feature, and girls in many bars will dress up in traditional Thai costumes. A large number of bars in Pattaya will also have special Loy Krathong parties.
The cultural roots and religious meaning of the Loy Krathong rites are actually rather unclear, but they’re believed to be of ancient Indian origin. As on most festive occasions, Thai people – especially lovers – simply wish for good luck in the coming year.
The kingdom’s most important holiday is King Bhumibol’s birthday on December 5, which is also Thailand’s National Day and celebrated as Father’s Day. As on election days and other important holidays with a religious or monarchy-related background, a general alcohol ban may be imposed (also applicable to foreign visitors) and all entertainment venues required to close for a day.
In 2015, Thailand has attracted almost 30 million foreign tourists and now targets 32 million arrivals in 2016. Beyond doubt, this is an extremely sharp increase since, for example, 1967 when a mere 336,000 tourists and 54,000 US servicemen visited the faraway kingdom; or a “meager” 11 million tourist arrivals just a decade ago (Wikipedia).
But not only have tourist numbers increased significantly since the 1960s and 1970s when primarily European and US-American “sex tourists” flocked to Bangkok and places like Pattaya; there’s also been a sharp increase in arrivals from Asia and Eastern Europe, especially in the past decade, and the number of couples and female tourists visiting the kingdom. Indeed, countries like China, Russia or India are now among the biggest tourist groups visiting Thailand.
Since Thailand’s “touristic discovery” in the 1960s, however, Thailand has been mainly connoted with so-called “sex tourism”. And yes, as little as Thailand’s tourism officials would admit this undeniable fact – without those millions of “love seekers” from all over the planet, Thailand as a tourist destination wouldn’t be anywhere near where it is nowadays.
Due to negative reports in the international media, however, the kingdom soon became known exclusively as some kind of “sex capital of Asia” which primarily catered to “sex-starved perverts, paedophiles and criminals”. And sadly, despite Thailand’s large number of cultural attractions, beautiful beaches and tropical islands, the country soon suffered from an image loss before it was even given the chance of building a more respectable reputation.
In fact, this one-sided focus on Thailand’s sex image that had initially laid the foundation for the kingdom’s rapid development as a tourist destination of world standard, soon overshadowed all the other facets of Thailand.
Thailand in the 21st century, however, isn’t just about sex, prostitution and adult nightlife – even though sex tourism admittedly still contributes to arrival numbers and continues to play a vital role in ensuring cashflow to the country and its rural areas.
Here’s not the place to discuss Thailand’s old image problems, or the issue of “sex tourism” in general, simply because there is so much more to a vacation in Thailand than exotic girls in Bangkok nightclubs trying to make a living from the hidden desires of Western civilization. Our advice: If you don’t like “sex tourists”, simply avoid “girlie bars” in Thailand’s notorious red-light districts – easy as that. (Otherwise, if you don’t mind, just follow your nose and enjoy.)
In the last two decades, Thailand’s strenuous tourism officials have made immense efforts to shift the country’s run-down image, away from sex tourism to family and so-called “quality” tourism. And while the “quality” part remains debatable, it’s surely true that since the late 1990s, the self-proclaimed “Land of Smiles” has indeed become a suitable tourist destination not only for single male tourists but couples, families and retired people alike.
The number of female visitors is especially large among the Chinese and Russians, most of whom travel as couples or families and seem to enjoy their vacation in Thailand just as much as the “vintage” sex tourists who are clearly becoming a minority, even in cities like Pattaya that have predominantly been (in)famous for their thriving nightlife and entertainment industry. In a way, the law of (less) demand and (also less) supply has somehow automatically reshaped even those traditional centres of Thailand’s old-established sex industry.
Take Pattaya for example: While the city’s bustling nightlife and sex industry certainly still play a major role in attracting (single male) tourists to Funtown, the “bar girl industry” is clearly in a crisis.
At the same time, the profile of vacationers visiting Pattaya has dramatically changed. More and more couples and families, many from emerging source markets like Russia and Eastern Europe, India and the Middle East, China and East Asia, have flocked to Pattaya in recent years and, through their mere presence, forced the city to refocus on the needs of this new breed of tourists. Just read our pages on the city’s vast range of tourist attractions, many of which cater primarily to family vacationers, to realize that holidays in Thailand can no longer be reduced to keywords such as “nightlife” and “sex tourism”. As we noted somewhere earlier:
Thailand’s simply got it all, something for everyone’s taste and budget – from white sand beaches lined with coconut palm trees and gold-ornamented Buddhist temples to lush evergreen rain forests; from tropical islands with crystal-clear water to the bustling nightlife and shopping paradises of Bangkok and Pattaya; from inexpensive bungalow huts for travelers with an eye on the budget to top-notch five-star luxury hotels.
And hey, unless you’re really a sourpuss, that surely includes something for you, too!