Thailand Travel Guide ->Short Overview of the History & Geography
 

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The area between the 6th and the 20th line of latitude (see Full Map of Thailand) that is now known as Thailand has since ancient times been the home of  highly developed civilizations,  long before it was "discovered" in the 16th century by Europeans (as a matter of fact, even before the Thai themselves arrived there). The earliest evidence of settlement is the Ban Chiang culture that existed in the 5th century B.C. in the Northeast of Thailand (many remains have been found in a small village near Udon Thani). The Ban Chiang people (their exact identity has not yet been determined) knew bronze, iron, ceramics, and ceremonial burials. They cultivated rice and kept domesticated animals.  In the 3rd century A.D. they disappeared, for reasons still unknown today.

Ancient Thailand (Mural at Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok)

9 centuries later, from the 6th century A.D. on, the Mon culture flourished in Thailand. The Mon settled in the Menam Delta in the Central Plains and in the North (Haripunchai, now called Lamphun,  was the capital of one of their most important kingdoms in the North) and  brought Buddhism, Sanskrit, and many other Indian influences to Thailand. The so-called Dvaravati style in Thailand`s Art  is named after their capital in the Menam Delta. The Mon art is mainly religious (i.e. Buddhist) art. They produced beautiful statues of Buddha and Buddhist saints with a characteristic physiognomy: broad, flat noses, deeply lined mouths, single bow-like eyebrows, and a gentle, though slightly demonic, smile. Besides bronze and stone stucco was one of their preferred materials.

The Mon were the dominant culture until the 11th century A.D. when they were being  more and more supplanted by the Khmer, a related people (that is still settling modern Cambodia). The Mon lasted longer in the North (or Lanna), where they were the dominant culture  until the end of the13th century. The bell-shaped Chedis as well as the pyramid-shaped Chedis that can be found near Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are typical of the Northern Mon culture. (The Mon still exist; though most of them now live in Burma or Myanmar).

Phimai
The Ruins of the Temple of Phimai

During the 11th century the Khmer, who had already built a very powerful kingdom in Cambodia, occupied the Menam delta and established a strongly military and centralized system of government. The Khmer governors in Thailand settled in Lopburi (some twenty kilometers north of modern Bangkok). The Khmer were masters of architecture, of which the ancient stone temples in the plains of the Northeast (Isan) of Thailand still bear testimony. One example are the magnificent ruins of the  temple of Phimai, a small town in the Northeast near Nakhon Ratchasima. The corn ear shaped Chedis (called Prangs) that can be found e.g. in Wat Arun in Bangkok are also typical of the Khmer style.

The Thai had already immigrated from southern China during the 9th and 10th century and first founded only small settlements. In the beginning of the 13th century they gradually succeeded in becoming free of the reign of the Khmer. The first Thai kingdom was Sukothai in the Central Plains from which originated an independent Thai culture. The Thai alphabet and script were developed in the Sukothai period, as well as new styles in art.


Small Village in Isan (Northeast Thailand)

From the middle of the 14th century the power of Sukothai decreased and it was more and more overshadowed by the new Kingdom of Ayuthaya north of the place that is today known in Thailand as Krung Thep (City of Angels) and outside of Thailand as Bangkok. Ayuthaya soon become one of the richest and  most splendid cities of its time. The court of Ayuthaya was strongly influenced by the Khmer culture. Only after the catastrophic invasion and subsequent destruction of Ayuthaya by the Burmese in 1767 did Bangkok (or Krung Thep) become first a temporary and later the permanent capital of Thailand. After Ayuthaya was lost, the remains of the Thai army started a 15 year war against the Burmese, the Vietnamese and the Lao that was, under the command of General Chakri, finally successful. General Chakri assumed the throne and became founder of the Chakri dynasty (of which the present king is the ninth monarch). His name as king was Rama I, and all of his successors are known, besides their personal names, as Rama II, Rama III, etc. Besto known in the West is probably King Mongkut (Rama IV, 1851 - 1868) - from the musical "The King and I" (by the way, Thais hate this film and also the books by Anna Leonowens it is based upon). His portrait there is, however, unfair and not correct: he studied arts and sciences (especially astronomy), spoke English and Latin, introduced law reforms, and started the modernization of Thailand. Before he ascended the throne, King Mongkut spent 27 years as a Buddhist monk and later abbot of a monastery.

His successor, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868 - 1900) continued his father`s reforms and opened his country up to the positive elements of modern European civilization. He abolished slavery, built the firsts hospitals and schools in Thailand, and, above all, managed through careful diplomatic maneuvering to preserve the sovereignty of his country. Thailand remained safe of European colonization.

In the 1930`s absolute monarchy was abolished and the name of the country was changed in 1939 by Prime Minister Phibun Songkhram to "Thailand" (the literal translation means "Land of the Free".)

The geography of Thailand is very diverse. Thailand covers an area of the 513.000 kilometers in square in which you can find tropical rain forests and  vast lush green rice fields (in the Central Plains), as well as dry and rocky plateaus (in the Northeast, called Isan), gentle hills covered with teakwood forests (in the North, called Lanna ) and  a coastline with some of the prettiest beaches of the world (in the South).

The majority of the population is still made up of  farmers and the predominant form of agriculture is wet-rice cultivation. Other agricultural products are tapioca and jute (cultivated in the Northeast),  vegetables (in the North), rubber (especially on Phuket and in the South of Thailand),  and of course a large variety of tropical fruit and coconuts.

Since 1932, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and the King and the Royal family are regarded by all Thais with genuine respect. The main religion is Theravada Buddhism (95% of the population), followed by Islam (about 6% of the population, mainly in the South). 75% of the population are Thai, 15% Chinese, and the remaining 10%  are a mixture of Vietnamese, Indians, Lao, Khmer, and the hilltribes of the North.

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Last Updated 25.12.2008