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Thailand: general information
Tourists visiting Thailand usually have a taste of Thai culture by visiting temples, eating delicious but spicy food, attending Thai boxing matches or going on treks in the jungle to see hill tribes minorities. We will try to give you some basic information on these subjects, i.e. religion, ethnic groups, food and sports, and we will also talk about superstitions, customs, music, cinema and television.
See also our other pages:
Thai customs (dos and don'ts in Thailand)
Festivals and Holidays
Ethnic groups in Thailand
Thailand is nearly 95% Theravada Buddhist, with a muslim minority (4.6%, mostly in the South). Buddhism in Thailand is strongly influenced by traditional beliefs regarding ancestral and natural spirits, which have been incorporated into Buddhist cosmology.
Thai people can go to the temple whenever they feel like it. Some go as often as four times a month (on holy days, date depending on the phases of the moon), some hardly ever go, some go only on special holidays or special occasions (such as their birthday, or the death of a relative). When going to the temple, people lit a candle and pray, then make offerings to the monks.
Thai men usually become monks one time in their life, for a three month period during Buddhist lent. They can also do it if someone in the family dies, like the parents or grand-parents. In this case it can be for only one or two weeks.
In all Thai houses there is a small altar with a statue of Buddha, usually high against a wall. People pray and make offerings, usually once per week. Outside the houses, there are small "spirit houses", where people make offerings too, in order to protect the house from spirits.
Most Thai people are very superstitious. The first contact with Thailand for a foreign traveller is often the taxi ride from the airport, and everybody immediately notices all the amulets hanging from the rearview window and the small images of Buddha stuck down the dashboard.
Thai people like to go and see fortune tellers, but they also go to the temple to ask the monks for advice. They strongly believe that there is a good day for everything: a good day to buy a car, a good day to build a house, or a good day to give birth. So the monks will tell them what day is the best day to buy a car, and they may also advise on the color of the car. When building a house, the monks will be able to tell what is the more auspicious day to start the construction. Some women even go the temple to know what will be the best day to give birth, and they make an appointment on the given day to undergo a caesarean section.
Numbers are also very important, for example Thai people like to choose their car's number plate (if they can afford the price, as it is a pay service).
The day of the week on which a person is born also matters a lot. If you are born on a Monday, yellow will be your colour, and maybe you won't get along well with someone who was born on a Wednesday, and you can't be incinerated on a Monday when you die, etc.
Concerning the house, the Thais respect a kind of "Fengshui", which means that the rooms and other elements of the house can't be placed randomly. The entrance of the house must face the east, the bathrooms must be at the west or south, two doors can't face each other, a staircase must have an even number of stairs, etc.
Lastly, we can also mention that the Thais like to interpret their dreams. I remember reading a funny story of a farang guy who was complaining because her Thai girlfriend had dreamed of him being with another girl, and she was furious against him when she woke up!
Names and nicknames
Thai people have a first name, a surname, and a nickname, given at birth. They always call themselves by their nickname, and the first name is only used in official occasions (at school, or on any administrative document). Sometimes people are friends but they don't even know their real first or last name, because they only use their nicknames. Nicknames are usually short, and some of them have a meaning (which can be Small, Fish, Shrimp... anything, really!).
So the real first name doesn't matter much, but a lot of people will change it anyway, if they think a new name can bring more luck. Then again they go the temple, and ask the monks for advice. Administrations comply easily, and the "certificate of name change" (bai plian chew) is part of the basic documents, like the birth certificate or house registration.
Like in other countries, there are two forms of marriage, civil and religious. For the civil marriage (chot tabian), the spouses go to the amphoer (equivalent of the city hall) with two witnesses and fill in a few forms, then they are delivered a certificate of marriage. There is no special ceremony, it's only an administrative procedure. The real marriage, the actual wedding, is the religious ceremony. It usually lasts one day, beginning at the bride's house with a ceremony in the morning in presence of the monks, who will say prayers and receive offerings. Blessed water may be mixed with wax candle and other ungents and herbs and applied by to the foreheads of the bride and groom. Then friends and family members are invited to bless the couple, and pictures are taken.
In the afternoon, the bride will go and visit the groom's family members houses, to pay her respect. In the evening, everybody is invited to have dinner, and finally the newly-weds are led to their bedroom, where the parents express their best wishes.
Please note that we have tried to describe a classic marriage, but the ceremony can vary a lot, depending on the province where it takes place, or on the social status of the families.
Traditionally, the groom will be expected to pay a dowry to the family, to compensate them and to show that the groom is financially capable of taking care of their daughter. Sometimes this sum is purely symbolic and will be returned to the bride and groom after the wedding has taken place.
Of course, if you have read the section about supersititions, you already know that a monk needs to be consulted for choosing an auspicious date for the wedding!
Funerals can last seven days or less, depending on the day when it is appropriate for the cremation to take place. The body of the deceased is kept outside the house, in an air-conditioned coffin, surrounded by flowers and wreaths. Everyone burns an incense stick and prays. Monks usually come every day, in the morning and at night, to chant prayers and receive offerings. Close family members will stay at the house and help prepare the meals for all the guests who will come everyday, for lunch or dinner. At night men stay awake to keep the deceased company, they drink alcohol and play cards. Playing cards is forbidden by the law in Thailand, but it is exceptionally authorized during funerals. The atmosphere during a funeral can seem surprisingly happy and relaxed, because the Thais believe that the decease needs happiness more than sadness.
On the last day, after a prayer with all close family members, pictures are taken in front of the coffin. Then the coffin is taken to the temple, where it is cremated. Back to the house, after a final prayer, a monk blesses family members, the house, and even the vehicles. The ash is either kept in a chedi in the local temple, or in an urn at home.
Like the description we gave of a marriage, please note that the ceremony can vary depending on local customs and habits.
In front of the house.
At the temple.
Chedis (stupas) at the temple.
Prayer at the temple before the cremation.
Just before the cremation, people pay their last respects.
Flowers and wreaths are put away, and the corpse is cremated.
See also: restaurants in Cha-Am
Thai food is spicy, sour and sweet. Rice is a basic component of Thai cuisine, as it is of most Asian cuisines. Steamed rice is accompanied by highly aromatic curries, stir-frys and other dishes, incorporating sometimes large quantities of chillies, lime juice and lemon grass. Noodles, known throughout parts of Southeast Asia by the Chinese name kwaytiow, are popular as well but usually come as a single dish, like the stir-fried Pad Thai or noodle soups.
The ingredient found in almost all Thai dishes and every region of the country is nam pla, a very aromatic and strong tasting fish sauce. Shrimp paste, a combination of ground shrimp and salt, is also extensively used. There is a uniquely Thai dish called nam prik which refers to a chile sauce or paste. It is prepared by crushing together chillies with various ingredients such as garlic and shrimp paste using a mortar and pestle. It is then often served with vegetables such as cucumbers, cabbage and yard-long beans, either raw or blanched. The vegetables are dipped into the sauce and eaten with rice.
Coconut is a main ingredient in desserts, in particular the milk and the shredded coconut pieces.
Khao pad - One of the most common dishes in Thailand, fried rice, Thai style. Usually with chicken, beef, shrimp, pork, crab or coconut or pineapple, or vegetarian.
Khao tom - A Chinese style rice soup, usually with pork.
Pad thai - Rice noodles pan fried with fish sauce, sugar, lime juice or tamarind pulp, chopped peanuts, and egg combined with chicken, seafood, or tofu.
Pad kaphrao - Beef, pork or chicken stir fried with Thai Holy basil.
Tom yam - Hot and sour soup. With shrimp it is called Tom yam koong, with seafood (typically shrimp, squid, fish) Tom yam talae, with chicken Tom yam kai.
Tom kha kai - Hot sweet soup with chicken and coconut milk.
Yam wun sen - Glass noodles salad with chicken or seafood.
Keng phet - Red curry, made with copious amounts of dried red chillies.
Keng khiew-waan - Green curry, made with fresh green chillies and flavoured with Thai basil, and chicken or fish meatballs. This dish is one of the spiciest of Thai curries.
Som tam - Grated papaya salad, pounded with a mortar and pestle. There are three main variations: Som tam poo with salted black crab, Som tam Thai with peanuts, dried shrimp and palm sugar and Som tam plara from north eastern part of Thailand (Issan), with salted gourami fish, white eggplants, fish sauce and long bean.
Larb - Sour salads containing meat, onions, chillies, roasted rice powder and garnished with mint.
Khao niao ma muang - Sticky rice and ripe mango.
Western food (as well as Chinese, Indian or Japanese food) is also available in many restaurants, in all large cities and popular resorts.
How to order not (so) spicy food
It happens very often that tourists in Thailand order not spicy food (they explicitely say "not spicy", or "may phet" in Thai), but the food comes and is still very spicy. Why is that? There are two reasons: "not spicy" for a Thai doesn't mean not spicy at all, it means "not very spicy". As they are so used to eat spicy food, they don't feel it anymore if there is only little chili. And even if they know what you want, sometimes the pan in which the food is prepared is enough to give a spicy taste to the food, even without adding any chili. So, if you want to order food which is not spicy at all, you have to specify "may say prik leuy" (do not use any chili), and you have to choose restaurants who are used to dealing with foreign tourists.
For more advice about ordering food (names of dishes in Thai and in English, hints for vegetarians, useful sentences for people who are allergic, etc.), we recommend that you download and print Chanchao's Thai travel menu
Arts and crafts
Thai visual art was traditionally primarily Buddhist. Thai Buddha images from different periods have a number of distinctive styles. In architecture, the first form of art, various styles can be found: Siamese, but also Khmer, Mon and Lao. Thailand is also famous for sculpture, the reclining Buddha of the Wat Po in Bangkok being one of the most massive bronze statue in the world. Contemporary Thai art often combines traditional Thai elements with modern techniques.
To learn more about Thai handicraft (textile, fabric, dresses, but also food and beverage), click here to see the best products Thailand has to offer
Dance and music
Thai dance is the main dramatic art form of Thailand. Thai classical dance drama include Khon, Lakhon, and Fawn Thai. Folk dance forms include dance theatre forms like Likay, numerous regional dances (Ram), the ritual dance Ram Muay, and homage to the teacher, Wai Khru. Both Ram Muay and Wai Khru take place before all traditional Thai boxing matches.
Khon is the most stylised form of Thai dance. It is performed by troupes of non-speaking dancers, the story being told by a chorus at the side of the stage. Choreography and costumes are dictated by tradition, with demons wearing coloured masks.
Lakhon features a wider range of stories than khon. Dancers are usually female and perform as a group rather than representing individual characters.
Fawn is another form of "folk-dance" accompanied by folk music of the region, such as the Fawn-Lep finger-nail dance from Chiang Mai.
Likay is much more varied than lakhon or khon. Stories may be original, and include singing, comedy and ham acting. Costumes may be traditional, modern or a combination of the two. Likay is often performed at village festivals.
The two most popular styles of traditional Thai music are luk thung and mor lam.
Luk thung, or Thai country music, developed in the mid-20th century. Many of the most popular artists have come from the central city of Suphanburi, including megastar Pumpuang Duangjan, who pioneered electronic luk thung.
Mor lam is the dominant folk music of Thailand's north-eastern Isan region, which has a mainly Lao population. It has much in common with luk thung, such as its focus on the life of the rural poor. It is characterized by rapid-fire, rhythmic vocals and a funk feel to the percussion. The lead singer, also called a mor lam, is most often accompanied by the khene.
The '70s saw the rise of protest songs called pleng phua cheewit (songs for life). The earliest pleng phua cheewit band was called Caravan, and they were at the forefront of a movement for democracy. In 1976, police and right wing activists attacked students at Thammasat University; Caravan, along with other bands and activists, fled for the rural hills where they continued playing music for local farmers. In the 1980s, pleng phua cheewit re-entered the mainstream with a grant of amnesty to dissidents. Bands like Carabao became best-sellers and incorporated sternly nationalistic elements in their lyrics.
String pop took over mainstream listeners in Thailand in the 90s, and pop stars like Tata Young and Bird became best-sellers. Simultaneously, Britpop influenced alternative rock artists like Modern Dog, Loso, Crub and Proud became popular in late 1990s. In 2006, famous Thai rock bands include Clash, Big Ass, Bodyslam and Silly Fools.
It is to be noted that HM King Bhumibol is an accomplished jazz musician and composer. He played with jazz legends like Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Lionel Hampton and Benny Carter.
Television and cinema
Television is by far the most popular medium in Thailand. There is a TV in every house and every shop, always on, even in offices and administrations.
Thai television channels remain under the tight control of various government agencies. The largest players in the Thai television industry are MCOT, a former state enterprise of which the government still owns 77%, and the Royal Thai Army, which retained ownership of numerous broadcast frequencies even after the end of military rule in Thailand.
Thailand's six terrestrial TV stations are:
- Channel 3, owned by MCOT.
- Channel 5, owned and operated by the Royal Thai Army.
- Channel 7, owned by the Royal Thai Army.
- Channel 9, owned and operated by MCOT.
- Channel 11, public service broadcaster, owned and operated by the government's Public Relations Department.
- TPBS (Thai Public Broadcasting Service), formerly iTV (owned and operated by Shin Corporation, the company of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) but its concession was cancelled in 2007 and the station was taken over by the Public Relations Department.
Soap operas from Channel 3 and Channel 7 keep the whole country (or at least its feminine population!) on tenterhooks every night. Most of them are cheap productions, with actors overplaying and cartoonish sound effects. Feminine characters are either sulky or hysterical, while masculine characters are either violent or effeminate. Some soaps are OK to watch, though, and it can help you learn Thai language. And when you have achieved a good level, why not go to a casting and try your luck as a soap actor? Some parts are played by Farangs. Just be prepared to play a bad guy, not a hero!
Aside from terrestrial television, Thailand has several cable and satellite television providers, the largest being UBC, which operates channels like BBC, CNN, Cinemax, Hallmark, Discovery, Cartoon Network... and also the French-speaking TV5.
For every genre that Hollywood or other film industries offer (action, comedy, horror, musicals...), there is an example from Thailand that favourably compares.
Thailand saw an explosion of locally produced films during the 1970s after the Thai government imposed a heavy tax on imported films in 1977, which led to a boycott of Thailand by Hollywood studios. Many of these films were low-grade action films. But socially conscious films were being made as well, especially by Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol, a US-educated filmmaker and member of the Thai Royal Family. Chatrichalerm's Khao Chue Karn (Dr. Karn) addressed corruption in the Thai civil service and was nearly banned by the military-dominated regime of Thanom. Chatrichalerm also made Hotel Angel (Thep Thida Rong Raem), about a young woman trapped into a life of prostitution. He made dozens of films along these socially conscious lines through the 1990s, working up to his lavish historical epic, The Legend of Suriyothai in 2001.
Another filmmaker active during this time was Vichit Kounavudhi, who made his share of action films as well as more socially conscious works like First Wife, about the custom of men taking "second wives" or "mia noi" - a euphemism for mistress. In 1985, director Euthana Mukdasanit made Pee Seua lae Dawkmai (Butterfly and Flower), highlighting hardships along the southern Thailand border. In 1997, Pen-Ek's crime comedy, Fun Bar Karaoke, was selected to play at the Berlin Film Festival - the first time in twenty years that Thai cinema had had any kind of an international presence.
In 2002, Blissfully Yours, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, won the "Un Certain Regard" Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Featuring a risque sex scene involving a Burmese man and a Thai woman in the jungle, the movie received only limited screenings in Thailand and a Thai-released DVD of the film was censored. Apichatpong's next film, Tropical Malady, featuring a gay romance between an army soldier and a young country boy, was a jury-prize winner at Cannes, and it, too, only received limited screenings in Thailand.
Films are heavily censored in Thailand. All films, VCDs and DVDs are placed under scrutiny of the Censorship Board prior to public release, as stipulated by the Film Act of 1930, which remains in effect as of 2008.
Action films are a predominant genre of Thai film. In recent years, the martial arts films starring Tony Jaa, Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior and Tom-Yum-Goong, have put Thai action films on the international map. Action comedies have also proven to be popular. No matter what the genre of Thai film, most films - be they action, horror or romantic dramas, have some element of comedy.
Kathoey (transsexual/transvestite) or gays are often featured as comic relief or villains in mainstream Thai films, but there have been a number of films that make gays and kathoey the main characters. One of the first was Youngyooth Thongkonthun's Iron Ladies, based on a true story about a kathoey's volleyball team that won a national championship in 1996. Less comedic in tone, Beautiful Boxer (2003) relates the life of transgendered Muay Thai champion Parinya Kiatbusaba (Nong Tum).
A few notable Thai films since the 70's
- Monrak Luk thung (1970) was a hugely popular luk thung musical. It played in cinemas for six months.
- Butterfly and Flowers (1985), an award-winning depiction of poverty along the Southern Thailand border, directed by Euthana Mukdasanit.
- Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), directed by Wisit Sasanatieng, the first Thai film to be included in the Cannes Film Festival programme.
- The Legend of Suriyothai (2001). Chatrichalerm's epic was the biggest film ever made in the Thai film industry.
- Blissfully Yours (2002), by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
- Tropical Malady (2003), by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
The most famous national sport in Thailand is of course Thai boxing (Muay Thai). This martial art uses kicks and punches in a ring with gloves similar to those used in Western boxing. The hands, shins, elbows, and knees are all used extensively.
Another sports played everywhere is Takraw. It is similar to volleyball, but played with the feet and a light rattan ball. Thai people also like to watch or play football or tennis, and they are very good at badminton and petanque.
When Thai people practice a sport, they usually take it seriously, and achieve a good level. It probably has something to do with the fact that they don't like losing face, or with the fact that they often play for money.
Paradorn Srichaphan, first Asian player who ever was in the world top ten tennis players
Princess Siriwannawari Nariratana represented Thailand in badminton at 23rd SEA Games in the Philippines
Women 4x100m relay team