Thailand's history, culture and traditions

Famous for its hospitality, cuisine and spirituality, this stunning country will captivate your senses. Find out more about Thailand's history as well as Thai culture and traditions...

By Saga team

Published 3 May 2024

Although Thailand's rulers were Khmer with roots in India and its culture (including Buddhism), the ancestors of modern Thais came from southern China, between the 10th and 13th centuries.

Towards the end of that period, several small states in the Mekong River Valley united to create the Thai kingdom.

In 1511, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach what was then called Siam; they found a ready market for arms and military training as the kingdom consolidated itself.

Other European powers followed, including the French in 1662, before an isolationist policy saw almost three centuries with no contact.

Phraya Taksin became king in 1769 and expanded the Thai kingdom into what is now Laos and beyond. He was removed in a coup by Rama I (rama means “king” in Thai), who established a new capital in the small village of Bangkok and began a stable dynasty that saw Thailand prosper.

Rama II 1 (1809-1824) opened up trade with China and Rama III consolidated it, while building up the army. Rama IV lived as a monk and championed the rights of women and children, as well as encouraging European trade again.

Rama V (1868-1901) abolished slavery and made other wide-ranging reforms to government. However, he also lost territory in both Laos and Cambodia to France. Rama VI (1910-1925) favoured westernisation, even introducing football as a sport, as well as primary education.

Rama VII (1925-1935) developed a constitutional monarchy along British lines, which remains the foundation of government.

The Japanese occupied Thailand during World War II. In 1946, the country's name was changed from "Siam" to "Thailand”. It became a military dictatorship from 1947 until 2007 with only brief periods of civilian government. People power, supported by the king, kept up pressure on the military throughout this time.

Democratic elections in 2007 finally ended military rule, although they retain a role under the new constitution of 2016.

Thais have been practicing Theravada Buddhism since at least 100 AD and it has left a deep impact on Thai culture, although Hinduism has also impacted art and literature.

Some 90% of Thais call themselves Buddhists, a faith that calls for a sense of peace with your surroundings and the people you meet. They will aim to project a smiling, positive air and avoid displays of emotion such as anger. Politeness and respect for others – particularly elders – is key. All this helps explain the air of calm self-effacement that makes the Thai people so welcoming to visitors.

Visitors should try not to show anger in public, as it’s deeply insulting to those criticised. Any loss of face is something to be avoided at all costs by both sides.

The common Thai greeting is a “wai”, with both hands joined as if in prayer and raised to the chest while the head bows. The depth of the bow depends on the respect being shown.

In a hierarchical society, young people respect elders, everyone respects monks, and hotel staff will obviously show respect to guests.

In a more private setting, establishing hierarchy is done by looking at things like clothing and behaviour - but it also depends on the asking of questions that may seem very personal to those from outside the culture.

The extended family is very important in Thailand, and children are expected to defer to and look after their parents for life.

Thais eat with a spoon (the main implement) in the right hand and fork in the left, which helps food on to the spoon. Sticky rice can be eaten by hand. It’s worth noting that chopsticks are one Chinese fashion that has not been adopted by Thais.

It’s traditional to leave a little food on the plate to show you are full, although rice is an exception, given its significance in the culture.

Like most great cuisines, Thai cooking has its basis in regional rivalries, although centuries of European and Chinese influences have given it a unifying flavour.

The Buddhist religion means large cuts of meat tend to be avoided, while Thailand’s long shoreline brings a multitude of fresh seafood to the diet.

Both ingredients lend themselves well to the fast fry method influenced by centuries of contact with China. This is the history of the familiar phat thai – stir-fried rice noodles, most commonly with tiny prawns or tofu in fish sauce and tamarind – even though the dish itself only dates to the 1930s.

It was the Portuguese who introduced chillies around the 16th century, but it’s worth mentioning that Thai food is a lot less spicy than it used to be.

Lemongrass and other more subtle flavours have toned down some of the urge towards hotness. Coconut milk replaces the ghee of Indian curries and adds extra smoothness to familiar Thai dishes such as green curry.

Heat does tend to dominate food in the south, along with coconut milk, herbs and spices such as turmeric, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. A typical dish would be tom som pla karaoke, a tart fish soup with turmeric, ginger and tamarind juice.

In the north of the country, sticky rice is a staple and there is much less coconut milk. Food here is seldom spicy, depending on fresh seasonal ingredients such as tomatoes.

A popular dish is khao soi – soft wheat-and-egg noodles in a spicy chicken broth – which shows a strong Chinese influence, as does the region’s love of pork and deep-frying.

One of the first things travellers think of buying in Thailand is silk. From pillows and scarves to ties and shoulder bags, it comes in a wide range of colours and quality. Not everything that looks silk IS silk, of course. (How to tell the difference? If you can pull a thread and burn it, it should smell like human hair.)

The Jim Thompson shops are a guarantee of authenticity, while buying in a market is riskier, although arguably more fun.

For clothes shopping, note that most Thais are petite. Those of smaller stature are in their element but the larger among us may struggle to find clothes that fit.

Wooden cravings are a delight and a bargain if you go big and ship furniture home. Chiang Mai is the furniture capital of the country – but be aware, teak items often come from illegally harvested wood.

Chests, beds and other carved items such as statues can make spectacular conversation pieces but remember also that statues of Buddha larger than five inches high can’t legally leave the country without an export certificate, which should come with any new items.

Thai celadon pottery is a unique product, whose pale blue or green colour makes it well suited to dinnerware. Benjarong, with its five colours of red, yellow, green, blue and white comes as more delicate porcelain items. Another choice for the table is black lacquerware, painted in gold leaf.

Speaking of gold, Thai gold jewellery is 22 carats compared to the 18 that is the UK norm, making it even better value. Silver jewellery is also a good souvenir, given the skill of the makers. They often use rubies and sapphires mined in Thailand – just be sure to look for a certificate of authenticity.

One more intangible purchase that will last forever is a Thai cooking lesson, offered by most hotels.

Thailand’s people – and its food – make it more than the sum of its parts, but those parts are still pretty special. From the beaches of the beautiful coastline to the frenetic streets of Bangkok, any visitor to Thailand has a host of options.

Bangkok was once a city of canals, which partly explains its modern traffic problems, and the Chao Phraya River remains a great way to see major sights, while being a draw in itself.

On Rattanakosin Island, you’ll find the monarch’s sprawling Grand Palace and nearby Wat Pho, home to the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand. You’ll also want to see Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, especially at first light when you can how it gets its name.

From the river, you can also explore the shops, restaurants and bars of Phra Arthit Road, and Taling Chan Weekend Floating Market or Pak Khlong Flower Market.

Phuket is the centre for those exploring the west coast and its beach resorts. Islands such as Phi Phi are so famous as to be somewhat spoilt by tourism, but you'll find the series of neighbouring islands are equally beautiful while offering a quieter experience. Don’t miss Phang Nga Bay, whose calm waters make it a great place to explore by sea kayak.

The east coast is a similar mix of party islands, such as Koh Samui, and those still relatively unspoilt, such as Koh Tao.

Northern Thailand is a contrast again, offering jungle treks to scenic waterfalls and meetings with Akha, Lisu, Hmong and Karen hill tribes.

The town of Chiang Mai is the base for exploring this region, but it is the mountain landscape that is the main attraction beyond its people.

Many British visitors want to see the ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ at Kanchanaburi; the war cemetery here is a moving experience.

Ready to plan your adventure in the Land of Smiles? Browse the Thailand holidays on offer with Saga.

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