With an area of 513,115sqkm (198,404sqmi), Thailand has roughly the size of France. Located between 6° and 21° north latitude and 97° and 106° east longitude, she is bordered in the north by Burma and Laos, in the west by Burma, in the east by Cambodia and Laos and in the south by Malaysia (and the Gulf of Thailand). The longest north-south distance is about 1500km (930mi), the longest east-west distance about 800km (500mi)
The topography is flat alluvial plains intersected by winding rivers and streams in central Thailand, a plateau in the northeast, forest-covered mountains and hills in the north and mostly hills in the south.
Central Thailand – The central region is considered the heartland of the country. Basically it encompasses the alluvial plains created by the Chao Phaya River. The region is the most fertile of the country, and due to an extensive network of canals and small irrigation projects, the area is a major producer of rice. It is also the most densely populated region of the country, with the capital, Bangkok, in its midst.
Northern Thailand – This region is composed of a series of parallel mountain ranges with an average elevation of 1,200m (3,900ft) above sea level, incised by steep valleys of the Ping, Wang, Yom, and Nan rivers. A large part of these mountains is still covered with tropical monsoon forests, though the most valuable timber, teak, has been cut to a wide extent (the government has now imposed a full logging ban). Doi Inthanon, with an elevation of 2,595m (8,514ft) the highest point in the country, is located in the extreme northwest of the region. The first three Thai kingdoms in Indochina had their capitals in northern Thailand, at Sukhothai, Chiang Mai and Chiang Saen. The second largest city of present-day Thailand, Chiang Mai, is the center of the northern region. The northernmost corner of northern Thailand belongs to the region dubbed Golden Triangle – one of the world’s major producers of opium.
Photo: Isan countryside
Northeastern Thailand – The region principally consists of a saucer shaped plateau known as Khorat Plateau with an average elevations of 200m (650ft). The region’s soils are poor and sandy and rainfall is scant except for the rainy season from June to October when much of the land is flooded. Areas not used for agriculture are largely covered with savanna-type grasses and shrubs. The Northeast is the least developed region of the country, and the least favored by tourists.
East Coast – This part of the country, geographically the southern edge of northeastern Thailand along the Gulf of Thailand, has not traditionally been considered a separate region of the country. The division, often made today, is based on administrative and social factors more than on geological features. The region is distinguished from the Northeast in that it is far richer – the second richest region of the country, after the central plain. The East Coast has a well-established industrial and touristic infrastructure. Furthermore contributing to the region’s wealth are extraordinary fruits (durians and mangos) as well as extraordinary stones (rubies and sapphires).
Photo: Countryside near Krabi, South Thailand
Southern Thailand – Occupying the northern half of the Malay Peninsula, the region has a rolling to mountainous topography with little flat land. The countryside is often breath-taking, and this asset is increasingly tapped for the development of tourism. Traditionally, the region’s relative wealth stems from its most important natural resources, tin and rubber.
The principal mountains of the country are: Doi Inthanon 2,595m (8,514ft), Doi Pha Ham Pok 2,297m (7536ft), Doi Luang 2,195m (7201ft), Doi Suthep 2,185m (7170ft) and Doi Pha Cho 2,024m (6640ft).
The most important rivers are (length in parentheses):
In central Thailand: Chao Phaya (365km) and Pasak (513km).
In the Northeast: Mekong (4335km, only partially in Thailand), Chi (442km), Mun (673km).
In the North: Ping (590km), Wang (335km), Yom (555km), Nan (672km).
In the West and South: Maeklong (140km), Petchburi (170km), Tapi (214km), Pattani (165km).
Thailand / Climate (2009)
Most of the country (except the far south) has three distinct seasons: cool (by tropical standards only), hot (by any standard) and rainy.
The cool season is from November to February. Average December temperature is 26°C (78°F) in Bangkok, 22°C (71°F) in Chiang Mai and 27° C (80°F) in Songkhla.
The hot season is from March to May. Average March temperature is 29°C (85°F) in Bangkok, 23°C (74°F) in Chiang Mai and 28° C (82°F) in Songkhla. Temperatures rise until middle or end of May and can reach an average of 2°to 3°Celsius (4°to 6°Fahrenheit) more in Bangkok and the North. The difference is likely to be less in the far south.
The rainy season is from June to October. Average September temperature is 28°C (82°F) in Bangkok, 27°C (80°F) in Chiang Mai and 28° C (82°F) in Songkhla.
Average precipitation in March is 3cm (1.2in) in Bangkok, 2cm (0.8in) in Chiang Mai, 6cm (2.4in) in Songkhla.
Average precipitation in June is 17cm (6.7in) in Bangkok, 15cm (5.7in) in Chiang Mai, 10cm (4in) in Songkhla.
Average precipitation in September is 31cm (12in) in Bangkok, 29cm (11.4in) in Chiang Mai, 11cm (4.1in) in Songkhla.
Average precipitation in December is 1cm (0.3in) in Bangkok, 1cm (0.3in) in Chiang Mai, 44cm (17.2in) in Songkhla.
The average yearly rainfall in Bangkok is 140cm (56in).
The coolest province in Loei in the Northeast where January night temperatures on hills can fall to a low which is just above freezing.
The rainy season is not necessarily the worst time to visit the country as downpours are usually hefty but short, with the sun returning within a few hours. Actually, for Bangkok alone the rainy season is probably the most pleasant time of the year as the downpours rid the air of the heavy pollution, at least for a short while.
Thailand / Weight and measures (2009)
The metric system was officially introduced by a law passed on December 17, 1923. However, old Thai units are still in common use, especially for measurements of land.
Buddha footprint in Buriram
The traditional units convert into metric units as follows: 1 picul = 60 kg; 1 catty = 600 grams (100 catty = 1 picul); 1 baht (named like the currency, used to weigh gold) = 15.16 grams; 1 carat = 20 centigrams (5 carat = 1 gram); 1 sen = 40 meters; 1 wah = 2 meters (20 wah = 1 sen); 1 sauk (?wah) = 0.50 meter; 1 keup (?sauk) = 0.25 meter; 1 rai (1 sq sen) = 1,600 sq meters; 1 ngan (?rai) = 400 sq meters; 1 sq wah = 4 sq meters (100 sq wah = 1 ngan); 1 kwien = 2,000 liters; 1 ban = 1,000 liters (2 ban = 1 kwien); 1 sat = 20 liters (50 sat = 1 ban); 1 tannan = 1 liter (20 tannan = 1 sat).
In 1940, Thailand moved its New Year’s Day from April 13 to January 1 to bring the country in line with most of the world. Until today, the old New Year’s Day (Songkran) is a holiday, and festivities are at least as exalted as on December 31 and January 1.
While a solar calendar has been used for a long time to count years, a lunar calendar is in use until today to set the dates of religious holidays (as it is the case with Easter in the Christian religion). And while Thailand switches to a new year at the same day as Christian countries, the years are still counted as Buddhist Era (B.E.) and not as Anno Domini (A.D.). 2484 B.E. was set as 1941 A.D.
The Buddhist Era started 543 years earlier than the Christian Era. Therefore 1957 A.D. was the year 2500 B.E.; 1993 A.D. is 2536 B.E. and the year 2000 A.D. will be 2543 B.E. While postal stamping indicates Buddhist Era, bank matters are usually conducted in accordance to the Christian count.
The time zone of Thailand is GMT + 7 hours.
Thailand / People (2009)
The population of Thailand is 60.6 million, the growth rate 1.5%, infant mortality 26 in 1,000 life births, and literacy 93.8%.
Thai beauty contest
With 60.6 million citizens, Thailand is less populous than Vietnam (74.6 million) and the Philippines (67.7 million) and much less populous than Indonesia (196.5 million) but larger than any of its immediate neighbors, Myanmar (46.7 million), Malaysia (20.1 million), Cambodia (9.8 million) and Laos (4.8 million).
The population growth rate is among the lowest in the region. Thailand’s 1.5% are higher than China’s 1.2% but lower than in Laos (2.9%), the Philippines (2.3%), Malaysia (2.4%), Vietnam (2.3%), Cambodia (2.5%), Myanmar (2.1%) and Indonesia (1.7%). The infant mortality rate is lower than in all the above cited countries except Malaysia. Thailand has the highest literacy rate among the countries cited above. [Source: Asiaweek, edition of November 17, 1995]
Photo: Muslim children in South Thailand
There are no ethnical conflicts worth mentioning in Thailand. The only low-key internal conflict, in the southernmost provinces of the kingdom, is based on a different religion and not ethnically caused. The southernmost provinces are predominantly Muslim, and the population there has Malay traits and many speak a Malayan dialect aside from Thai. Although the relationship between these southernmost provinces and Bangkok is sometimes not exactly harmonious, there are no serious secessionist or separatist tendencies.
The absence of ethnically based conflicts leads observers to assume that the Thailand is ethnically more coherent than is actually the case. While there is indeed no single large ethnical minority (as for example the Kurds in Iraq, Iran and Turkey), there is a very large number of small ethnic groups with societies less civilized than the mainstream Thai society. Most of these tribal societies are found in the northern part of the country.
But even the mainstream Thai society is far less coherent than, for example, the Japanese society. Originally, the Thais lived in what is today Yunnan Province in southern China, and indeed, the Thai language is similar to and tonal like the Chinese (see chapter Language for details). Only in the first centuries of the second millennium A.D. did Thais in substantial numbers migrate to what is today Thai territory. Thais mixed with a number of peoples already inhabiting the region. Furthermore, substantial relocations of large numbers of people occurred whenever a regional power gained political and military predominance.
Thailand, or rather Siam, also has a long tradition of granting political asylum to groups from neighboring countries who fled their homes because of religious or ethnically motivated persecution. Vietnamese Christians, Mon people from Burma and political dissidents from Cambodia have sought and received shelter in Thailand not just after the Vietnam War but already hundreds of years ago. And last not least, a large number of Chinese has migrated to Thailand from times when the Thais themselves only gained the territory of what today by and large is Thailand. The Chinese, though, rather came for commercial than religious or political reasons. The son of a Chinese father and a Thai mother, Taksin, even was king of Thailand from 1767 to 1782.
Large sections of northern Thailand have been under Burmese rule for many centuries, and this not only resulted in a Burmese-influenced architecture but also in an ethnical mix.
Therefore, what gives the Thai citizenry its strong sense of identity is rather of cultural, linguistic, religious and political than ethnical nature. Though the Thai language is spoken quite differently in the South, the North or the Northeast, the written language is the same. A politically unifying influence of a scale hard to underestimate is exerted by the monarchy, for decades personalized by the extremely popular King Bhumiphol Adulyadej.
Thailand / State and monarchy (2009)
Since June 24, 1932, when a group of Western-educated military officers and government officials staged a coup against the absolute monarchy (for details, please see files in History), Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with King Bhumiphol Adulyadej the head of state.
Billboard with the Thai king
The change from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy was probably the most far-reaching transition in the Thai monarchy, but it wasn’t the first change in the structure of the monarchy, and it certainly wasn’t the most violent transition.
The Thai monarchy, like any monarchy, developed from tribal leadership. As the powers of tribal leaders have usually not been as unlimited as those of kings in more developed societies, the Thai monarchy started in Sukhothai with a number of kings reported to have been very close to the people. The concept of an absolute monarchy was adopted from the declining Khmer empire at the beginning of the Ayutthaya era.
From the Sukhothai era until now, eight dynasties reigned the country. The transitions were usually bloody, with a high palace official establishing himself as king in place of the legal inheritors to the throne (for details, see files in History).
The current Chakri dynasty. established 1782 after a palace revolt, has been the most durable. King Bhumiphol Adulyadej who ascended the throne in 1946 though only crowned in 1950, is the longest reigning king in Thai history (and in 1992 the longest presently reigning monarch of the world). He succeeded his older brother, King Ananda Mahidol, who was found shot dead in the Royal Palace of Bangkok on June 9, 1946. The circumstances of King Ananda Mahidol’s death remain a mystery until today.
King Bhumiphol Adulyadej was born December 5, 1927, married on April 28, 1950 Princess Sirikit, and was crowned May 5, 1950. Their children are Princess Ubol Ratana (born 5 April 1951, married in August 1972 Peter Ladd Jensen and now lives in the US), Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn (born July 28, 1952 and married January 3, 1977 Soamsawali Kitiyakra), Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn (born April 2, 1955, unmarried), Princess Chulabhorn (born July 4, 1957 married January 7, 1982 Virayudth Didyasarin).
The king’s power is regulated by the constitution and subject to its limitation. The king opens the parliament and appoints the prime minister (though the selection is done by political parties or the military) as well as the members of the privy council. All governmental powers are exercised in his name. However, the king has limited influence on the affairs of the state as he only serves as the state’s symbolic representative.
Palace matters are regulated by the palace law known as Gotmontienboan. It dates back to King Rama Tibodi I, the founder of the Ayutthaya kingdom in 1358. The palace law which was modified as required by the course of history until today defines Thai nobility, especially the ranks and titles of the king’s children and relatives, and it does so according to the status of their mothers. While many kings, especially in the 19th century had several wives, only one was elevated to the rank of queen, and only the king’s children with her were in line to ascend the throne.
Thai ranks of nobility are hereditary only to a certain extent. Typically, each following generation descends by one rank. However, the king traditionally had a free rank to bestow ranks of nobility on those who served him well. (For traditional Thai ranks of nobility, see the entry under the year 1448 in the chapter History.)
In the 17th century, a Greek immigrant to Siam, Constantine Phaulkon became the counsel of King Narai and rose through all ranks of Thai nobility, starting as Luang Wijayen and becoming Phra Wijayen, Phaya Wijayen and finally Chao Phaya Wijayen. Under King Narai’s successor, he was executed.
King’s children are called Chao Fah or Chao. If male, he is called Chao Fah Chai, if female, Chao Fah Ying. Chao’s children have the lower rank of Phra Ong Chao or Phra, while the Phra’s child has the rank of Mom Chao. They are all addressed in Rachasap, the royal language, which was borrowed from the Khmer in the early Ayutthaya period and is still in use today. For example, “I” when used by a commoner in talking about himself in Rachasap to members of the royal family is Tai Far La Ong Tuli Prabat, which literally translates into “I who am but dust under your feet”.
From the Mom Chao rank, all that follow are no longer addressed in royal language. The child of a Mom Chao is a Mom Rachawangse. A Mom Luang is the child of a Mom Rachawangse.
The monarchy has three administrative divisions, namely:
Privy Council – It stands as the advisor of the monarch and sometimes appoints regents to exercise royal powers (as was the case for most of the reign of King Ananda Mahidol).
Office of the Royal Household – This agency organizes the ceremonial functions of the monarch and administrates the finances and housekeeping of the royal court.
His Majesty’s Royal Secretariat – It does the clerical and secretarial jobs for the king.
The executive power of the government is in the hands of the prime minister. All constitutions the country had since 1932 provided that the prime minister be elected by the parliament, either a unicameral or bicameral body of legislators (see below). Direct elections of the prime minister have never been considered, as in practically all countries with a constitutional monarchy. A prime minister or president elected directly by the people would certainly erode the position of the nominal head of state, in Thailand the king.
In practice many of the country’s prime ministers were not elected by the parliament but rather appointed by the military. In several cases a coup leader appointed himself prime minister (for details see the chapter History).
Thailand is divided into more than 70 provinces (Changwats), each under the administration of a Changwat governor. The Changwats are subdivided into more than 650 districts (Amphoes) and about 90 sub-districts (King Amphoes), almost 7,000 communes (Tambons) and some 60,000 villages (Moobans). The capital of each province has the same name as the province, or rather: each province is named after its capital.
In alphabetical order, the provinces are (region in parentheses):
Ang Thong (Central), Ayutthaya (Central), Buriram (Northeast), Chachoengsao (Central), Chai Nat (Central), Chaiyaphum (Northeast), Chanthaburi (East Coast), Chiang Mai (North), Chiang Rai (North), Chonburi (East Coast), Chumphon (South), Kalasin (Northeast), Kamphaeng Phet (North), Kanchanaburi (Central), Khon Kaen (Northeast), Krabi (South), Krung Thep or Bangkok, Lampang (North), Lamphun (North), Loei (Northeast), Lopburi (Central), Mae Hong Son (North), Maha Sarakham (Northeast), Mukdahan (Northeast), Nakhon Nayok (Central), Nakhon Pathom (Central), Nakhon Phanom (Northeast), Nakhon Ratchasima (Northeast), Nakhon Sawan (North), Nakhon Si Thammarat (South), Nan (North), Narathiwat (South), Nong Khai (Northeast), Nonthaburi (Central), Pathum Thani (Central), Pattani (South), Phang Nga (South), Phattalung (South), Phayao (North), Phetchabun (North), Petchburi (Central), Phichit (North), Phitsanulok (North), Phrae (North), Phuket (South), Prachinburi (Central), Prachuap Khiri Khan (Central), Ranong (South), Ratchaburi (Central), Rayong (East Coast), Roi Et (Northeast), Sakhon Nakhon (Northeast), Samut Prakan (Central), Samut Sakhon (Central), Samut Songkhram (Central), Saraburi (Central), Satun (South), Singburi (Central), Si Saket (Northeast), Songkhla (South), Sukhothai (North), Suphanburi (Central), Surat Thani (South), Surin (Northeast), Tak (North), Trang (South), Trat (East Coast), Ubon Ratchathani (Northeast), Udon Thani (Northeast), Uthai Thani (North), Uttaradit (North), Yala (South), Yasothon (Northeast)
The country’s constitution provides for a bicameral National Assembly with an elected House of Representatives and an appointed Senate. For an appointed body, the Senate is considered fairly powerful. It can play a substantial part in bringing down a government. The mechanism by which the Senate is appointed guarantees the country’s military to be well heard in government affairs.
The constitution also provides for fairly large electoral constituencies, with several representatives elected in each. Elected are individuals, not parties. Party affiliations of candidates are important, as candidates can gain from the popularity of their party leaders. However, in many cases, political parties contest to bring local political kingpins into their ranks. It has not been uncommon that popular or powerful local politicians switch parties if they are promised a better deal (e.g. a nomination as minister) by their new political hosts.
The judicial power is exercised in the name of the king. The system is organized in three levels. The lowest level are courts of first instance, the middle level are the courts of appeals (Uthorn) and the highest level is the Supreme Court (Dika). Judges are appointed, transferred and dismissed by the king on recommendation of the Ministry of Justice. Judges are independent in conducting trials and giving judgement in accordance with the law.
Courts of first instance are subdivided into 20 magistrate courts (Kwaeng) with limited civil and minor criminal jurisdiction and 85 provincial courts (Changwat courts) with unlimited civil and criminal jurisdiction and the criminal and civil courts with exclusive jurisdiction in the capital. There is a central juvenile court in Bangkok for defendants under 18 years of age.
The courts of appeals review decisions in civil and criminal cases from all courts of first instance. It has 17 divisions and requires 2 judges to sit at each hearings. Judgements from the courts of appeals can be brought for review to the Supreme Court on any point of law and, in certain cases, on questions of fact.
The Dika (Supreme) Court is the supreme tribunal of the land. It is composed of its president and 21 judges. Appealed cases are heard by 3 judges. Besides its normal appellate jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters, it has semi-original jurisdiction over general election petitions. Supreme Court decisions are final.