Introduction to Thailand Culture
With picture perfect tropical islands, fascinating ethnic communities and a rich architectural history, Thailand is undoubtedly one of Asia’s most popular destinations.
Bangkok is its pulsing heart, where skyscrapers sprawl along the banks of the Chao Phraya River, juxtaposed against the grandeur of Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace. To the south lies the palm-fringed beaches and islands of the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand, renowned for their snorkeling, diving and nightlife. While to the north is the cultural center of Chiang Mai and the remote minority communities of the long-necked Karen, Hmong, Lahu and Akha people.
From bamboo rafting and elephant trekking through dense jungles, to wandering amongst the ruins of the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, Thailand is a country that captivates at every turn.
History of Thailand
Although humans have inhabited what is modern day Thailand for around 40,000 years, it wasn’t until the 13th century that the first Buddhist Thai Kingdom was founded in Sukhothai. A new kingdom was established in the mid-14th century on the banks of the Chao Phraya River (just to the north of where Bangkok now lies), expanding to become the capital of Siam at Ayutthaya. Burmese forces raided Ayutthaya in 1767 (with the decapitated Buddha heads still visible) and the capital was moved to Thonburi, then Rattanokosin, where it developed into the city we know as Bangkok today.
While most of the countries surrounding Thailand were colonized by Europeans, Thailand’s rulers were able to exploit the rivalry between French Indochina and the British Empire to their advantage. Nevertheless, they did succumb to British pressure in 1909, ceding four southern ethnic-Malay provinces in the Anglo-Siamese Treaty. A revolution in 1932 resulted in the first constitution being established by King Prajadhipok, and seven years later the country’s name, Siam, was officially changed to Thailand.
The Japanese drew Thailand into World War II by invading the country in December 1941, before a military alliance was signed between the two countries. Thailand agreed to assist the Japanese against the Allied forces, in return for help regaining the territory lost to the British in 1909. The Thai-Burma Railway became the most lasting legacy of the war in Southeast Asia, with 60,000 prisoners of war, together with 200,000 Asian laborers, working in horrific conditions on what became known as the “Death Railway”.
Although Thailand has undergone numerous coups d’état in the post-war years, they have evolved as a stable democracy and one of the driving economic forces in Southeast Asia, as well as one of its most popular tourist destinations.
Theravada Buddhism is the main religion in Thailand and remains a strong element in Thai culture. It draws on influences from Hinduism and animism, and the official Thai calendar is based on the Eastern version of the Buddhist Era (BE), 543 years in advance of the Gregorian (or Western) calendar. More than 94% of the population identify themselves as believers of Theravada Buddhism, with around 4.5% following Islam (predominantly Sunni Muslim in the southern provinces) and less than 1% Christian. There are also small minorities of Sikhs and Hindus, as well as a Jewish community who established themselves in Thailand during the 17th century.
Thailand’s official language is Thai, which is taught at schools and spoken throughout the country, although different dialects exist in the far south and northern Thai provinces. It is written using the Thai alphabet, which evolved from the Khmer alphabet. Numerous minority groups each have their own language, including the Lao dialect of Isan, spoken by some groups in Thailand’s northeast, as well as Kelantan-Pattani Malay by the southern Malay Muslim populations. Mon, Khmer, Viet, Akha, Karen and Hmong are also spoken by small minority groups. English is now a compulsory school subject in Thailand, but in the rural areas it is still spoken by very few.
Thais traditionally greet one another with the wai – a sign of respect and reverence. It is usually offered by the younger person by pressing their hands together and bowing their head to touch their fingertips. This is accompanied by the words ‘sawatdi khrap’ for males and ‘sawatdi kha’ for females, before the elder then responds.
Ancestors are highly respected in Thai culture and recognized as part of spiritual practice. Thai custom dictates that elders have a strong influence over family decisions and older siblings are required to look after and be a role model for younger ones. Thai cultural taboos include touching someone’s head (which is considered the most sacred part of the body), or pointing with your feet.
Thailand’s regional relationships
Thailand is bordered by Malaysia to the south, Cambodia and Laos to the east and Myanmar (or Burma) to the northwest. Each of these countries has shaped Thai culture, together with influences from India and China. It is one of the largest economies in the region (with Indonesia the only country with a larger GDP in Southeast Asia), and serves as an anchor economy for the developing countries which surround it.
Thailand’s cuisine has been heavily influenced by the neighboring countries of Burma, Laos and Cambodia, together with the cooking traditions of China and Vietnam. Variations in landscape and ethnic diversity have resulted in regional differences across the country, and the combination of sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy flavors create an enticing mix that has become one of the world’s most popular cuisines.
While pad thai and green curry are staples on Thai restaurant menus outside of the country, the truth is that Thai cuisine is hugely diverse. Sampling the authentic soups, noodle and rice dishes at the lively food markets are one of the true pleasures of traveling in Thailand, not to mention the variety of exotic tropical fruits.
The Thai calendar brings with it plenty of festivals, which draw on the rich culture and religious traditions of the country. Songkran, or the ‘Water Festival’, in mid-April heralds in the New Year and sees the country’s most sacred temples overflowing with devotees who perform a ritual cleansing of the Buddha statues. Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho and Wat Arun in Bangkok are among Thailand’s most sacred temples and a good place to witness the long-established tradition of Songkran, before heading out into the streets where Thais of all ages soak one another with water pistols, balloons and buckets in a more modern adaptation.
The ‘Festival of Light’, or Loi Krathong, is another one of Thailand’s evocative festivals, celebrated on the full moon of the 12th Thai calendar month. Banana leaves woven into lotus shapes and decorated with flowers, incense and candles are floated down rivers across the country, while in Chiang Mai the night sky becomes illuminated with hundred of floating lanterns.
While Thailand boasts a rich history and culture, steeped in religious tradition, when you are walking the streets of Bangkok, there’s no denying that the country is surging into the future. While offerings are still sold outside ancient temples by elderly residents, the young bustle amidst the capital’s gleaming skyscrapers to and from modern shopping malls.
But outside the capital, the rural population of Thailand still lives a semi-subsistence lifestyle, and in some ethnic minority communities, long-established customs still dictate day-to-day life. While Thailand may be one of the innovators and driving forces in Southeast Asian economics, many still proudly uphold its traditions.
Build Abroad in Thailand
Build Abroad assists local Thai communities in building schools, particularly in rural regions where government assistance is lacking. Our teams of volunteers renovate and build from scratch educational facilities that will serve the communities well into the future, ensuring Thai village children don’t miss out on vital learning opportunities. We also work on building and renovating other structures within the communities, including ‘clay houses’ used for meditation purposes.
Our volunteers live together in shared dorm accommodations, with communal areas to eat and socialize with like-minded people from across the world. Within the weekly schedule there’s plenty of time to explore the surrounding area, and weekend trips to laze on the beaches of Thailand’s spectacular islands or go trekking in the highlands are a highlight.
Why volunteer in Thailand
Thailand offers the intrepid traveler so much, from idyllic beaches to lush jungle, as well as a fascinating culture and enticing cuisine. Volunteering with Build Abroad allows you to immerse yourself in one of Thailand’s rural communities and witness a completely different way of life, while connecting with others from across the globe.
During the week you’ll be working to make a real difference in the lives of others while soaking up the hospitality and generosity for which the Thai people are renowned, while during weekends you can venture off to explore all corners of the country. Rather than just being a tourist, Build Abroad’s volunteer programs allow you to witness a more authentic side of Thailand and experience what makes this ‘Land of Smiles’ truly special.