Located in Southeast Asia, Thailand shares borders with Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. The culture of the country has evolved dramatically over time from the Sukhothai era to the Ayutthaya era, through to today’s modern Thailand. Strong cultural influences from China, India, and other Southeast Asian cultures are evident throughout Thai culture today. However, there are also many elements of Thai culture which are uniquely Thai. The country boasts a varied and diverse landscape, famously friendly people, and incredible cultural sites rich with history and tradition.
Thailand is separated into four distinct regions, each of which has its own cultural identity and geographic features:
Northern Thailand shares a border with Laos to the East and Myanmar to the West. This region is famed for its stunning mountain scenery, thick forests, and river valleys. Here, the culture is heavily influenced by Burmese culture with other influences from the Lanna kingdom.
North-eastern Thailand, known locally as Isan, lies behind a huge mountain range, almost cutting it off completely from the rest of Thailand. Here, the cultural influences come from Laos, once a part of Thailand, with many people here speaking Lao as their primary language.
Southern Thailand is located along the Malay Peninsula and is home to many of Thailand’s picturesque beaches and resorts. Boasting a tropical climate and many stunning islands, Southern Thailand is home to numerous fishing communities and is a hugely popular tourist destination.
Central Thailand is the most prominent in the country and is home to the capital city, Bangkok. The most populous region, it has been the economic centre of Thailand for generations and is also the political and cultural centre of the country for ethnic Thai culture.
Much of Thailand’s cultural identity comes from ethnic Thai people. Many of the values, traditions, and beliefs practiced in Thai culture stem from Buddhism, a hugely important influence throughout the country. Although Buddhism is by far the most popular and influential religion, Hinduism has also made important contributions to Thai culture as have traditions from China, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar.
Approximately 70% of Thailand’s population are from Thai ethnic groups with the remaining population divided between Chinese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Hmong, and Mein. While there are countless subgroups of Thai ethnicity, the values and culture varies only slightly, creating a strong bond and sense of identity among Thai people as a whole.
The Thai Government have placed a strong emphasis on preserving and encouraging the sense of national identity and culture since the 1950s. This has led to recent resurgences in local food, beliefs, celebrations, music, dance, and customs in everyday Thai life.
Important Note: While the Georgian Calendar is used in Thailand, the official calendar is the Thai Solar Calendar which is counted from the Buddha Era and is 543 years ahead.
As a predominantly Buddhist country, values play a huge role in Thai society. Up and down the country, people hold important values which they are taught from a young age such as self-control, respect, and maintaining a non-confrontational attitude. To show anger or tell a lie is the source of great shame for Thai people and is the equivalent to losing face. These values are visible and present whether in the busy streets of Bangkok or the mountain villages of Isan.
One of the most important values to Thai people is family and respect for elders. The Thai language is littered with respectful words to use when communicating with elder people or family members. These characterise almost every interaction – from children respecting teachers to young respecting the elderly to words of respect hen addressing a government official, monk, or anyone else of a high social standing. This respect is also shown to family and you will often find generations of the same family living under a single roof in Thailand.
Another value that Thai people live by is “sanuk”. Sanuk is the idea that embodies a sense of humour, happiness, and playfulness, and it is central to everyday Thai life. It is this idea that makes Thai people so friendly, funny, and welcoming and is incredibly important in the Thai way of life.
Food has long been an essential part of Thai culture with slight variations in how the food is prepared and eaten depending on the region of Thailand. The use of herbs, spices, and flavourings is strongly present in all Thai cooking and there is a vast array of food to choose from whether dining in a 5-star restaurant in Bangkok or eating on the side of the road from a street vendor in a small village.
Thai people generally eat with a spoon and a fork and order a range of dishes which are shared among the party of people dining. Rice, soup, curry, and meat are all part of a traditional Thai dinner with dishes such as Tom Yum, Pad Thai, and Thai Curry among the most famous and well-known. Depending on which region you are staying in you will discover different tastes and flavours. For instance, northern Thai cooking features sour and spicy flavours while southern Thai cooking the food is packed with herbs and spices.
While traditional Thai cuisine heavily features meat, the food culture is also moving forward with the times and there are increasingly a large number of vegetarian options available not just in restaurants but also from street vendors.
Must-try Thai Cuisine: Tom Yum Soup, Pad Thai, Som Tum Salad, Gaeng Daeng (Red Curry), Pad Krapow Moo Saap (Fried Pork and Basil).