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Thai People: History, Culture, Food and More

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Thailand is the 20th most populated country on the planet and is the 3rd largest country in Southeast Asia. The Thai people have a fascinating history that has led to a diverse population within the country.

Who are the Thai people and where did they come from? Does everyone who lives within the border of the country today consider themselves Thai?

I had the opportunity to spend over 3 years in a small town in southern Thailand called Songkhla and am grateful to have been able to experience the amazing Thai people firsthand.

The kindness, generosity and hospitality shown to me were unforgettable and sparked a curiosity to learn as much as I could about their beautiful culture, and I want to share what I have learnt with you.

Let’s first take a look at the history of Thailand to understand how things got to the way they are today.

History of the Thai People

Ready for a SparkNotes-style run through Thai history?

Long before the borders of modern-day Thailand were established, the area was inhabited by several different tribes and kingdoms, including the Mon, Cham, and Khmer peoples. The group of people known as the Tai, originating in southwestern China or northwestern Vietnam, began to make their way into modern-day Thailand around 1000 CE.

The influence of the Khmer and the Mon already occupying the area would lead to the Tai adopting many customs of Theravada Buddhism. These would go on to be mixed with already established Tai traditions.

Over the course of hundreds of years, the Tai people began to establish city-states that would eventually grow in power and lead to the establishment of several Tai kingdoms that would compete for power in the area.

With the Khmer empire declining, the Sukhothai Kingdom, established in 1238, and the Ayutthaya Kingdom, established in 1351, would begin to take power and become influential in the area.

The Kingdom of Ayutthaya would go on to rule for over 400 years based in what is now central Thailand. This group is considered by many to be the precursor to the modern Thailand we know today.

In 1782, Rama I became the first King of the Chakri dynasty and established his new capital in Bangkok.

It was around this time that the borders of Thailand were starting to become established. People from several different tribes in the region would eventually become citizens of the Thai Kingdom, whether or not they actually descended from the Tai people.

This would lead to a long period of assimilation between the Tai people and their new subjects. The areas of language, culture, and religion would initially stand out as difficult differences to overcome.

Today, Thailand is highly influenced by the densely populated capital of Bangkok in the central part of the country. Despite this, Thailand continues to have distinct regions within the country that each have their own dialects of the Thai language and unique cultures.

Regions of Modern-Day Thailand

There are 4 distinct parts of Thailand, the Central, Southern, Northern, and Isan regions.

The central part of Thailand is home to the largest city in the country, Bangkok, with over 10 million inhabitants. The capital city is the seat of the government and home of the Royal Palace and as such exerts great influence on the rest of the country. The Thai spoken in this region is considered standard Thai and is the language of education and government throughout the nation.

Northern Thailand is a region of the country that shares a border with both Laos and Myanmar. Chiang Mai is the largest city in the area with over 1 million inhabitants. With a population of over 6 million, Northern Thailand is incredibly diverse with many distinct tribes continuing to exist today in the mountainous areas. These include the Karen, Hmong, Akha, Lahu, and Yao peoples.

The language spoken in this region can vary from tribe to tribe but generally, the northern dialect of Thai will be understood. Northern Thai is similar to standard Thai but contains influences from Laotian, the language of their nearby neighbors in Laos.

The อีสาน (Isan) region of Thailand is in the northeastern part of the country and consists of 22 provinces with a population of over 22 million people.

Ethnically Laotian, most people in this region will identify as คนอีสาน (kon isan) or “Isan Person,” distinguishing themselves from the modern inhabitants of Laos. The language is referred to as ภาษาอีสาน (pasa Isan) and is closely related to Laotian.

Southern Thailand occupies the Malay Peninsula and consists of 14 provinces with a population of over 9 million people. Known for its beautiful beaches, the southern part of the country also has its own dialect known as ภาษาใต้ (pasa dtai) or “Southern Language.”

Having spent most of my time in Thailand in the southern region of the country, I can attest to the fact that southern Thai is a distinct dialect that is spoken faster and in a more abbreviated manner as compared to standard Thai. These differences make comprehension difficult for those who are not native speakers of the dialect.

Population Diversity

While today most citizens of the Kingdom of Thailand would identify as Thai, there still remain large minority ethnic groups throughout the country. Thai Chinese make up the largest of these with a population of 7-10 million people.

In the last 200 years, Chinese immigrants have made Thailand their home and have become deeply integrated into the nation. Thai Chinese have played prominent roles in politics with many former Prime Ministers having some form of Chinese ancestry.

They have also proven to be influential in the Thai economy today with some of the largest businesses in the country being owned by Thai Chinese. Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi is one such individual who has become the third richest person in the nation with a net worth of $11.2 billion dollars as a result of his beverage and real estate empires.

What is Thai Culture Like?

As with many countries today, Thailand is trying to embrace new ideas and trends while still attempting to hold onto past traditions and customs that are uniquely Thai. How is this balance maintained?

Thai Clothing

While much of Thailand has adopted western-style clothing as the norm, traditional clothing, or ชุดไทย (chut thai), still has a large place in the culture today.

Often worn during special occasions such as a wedding, festival, or other celebrations, women desiring to wear traditional clothing have a number of options to choose from. The ผ้าซิ่น (pha sin) is a long handmade skirt, often made of silk. It will often be accompanied by a สไบ (sabai) which is a shawl-like garment worn over one shoulder.

For men, a shirt called the เสื้อพระราชทาน (suea phraratchathan) is often worn on special occasions. It comes in short and long-sleeve varieties and can be accessorized with a sash for the most formal of events. It is often worn with western-style trousers.

Importance of Showing Respect Through Gestures

In Thai culture, it is extremely important to show respect to one another, especially to those who are older than you or of a higher status such as a boss, parent, or religious figure. This can be accomplished in your choice of words and through gestures.

One of the most recognizable features of Thai culture and communication is the ไหว้ (wai) gesture. It is done by placing both hands together, palms touching, around the chest to neck level. It can be accompanied by a slight bow as well.

This gesture can be used when saying hello, goodbye, and even when thanking someone. Younger people should always ไหว้ (wai) an older person first. A person of lower status, such as an employee, should similarly take the initiative to ไหว้ (wai) a person of higher status, like their boss. It is a sign of respect that is an important part of Thai culture.

Importance of Showing Respect Through Word Choice

As with most languages, Thai has a large spectrum of words that can be used in either formal or informal situations. While it is perfectly okay to use slang and less polite words with close friends, you must choose your words more carefully when speaking with those who are older or of a higher status.

The Thai language contains a series of words called “ending particles” that do not have a meaning on their own but change the way a sentence comes across to the person you are speaking with. We might compare it in English to saying “please” at the end of a request. It is a way to show politeness and consideration for the other person.

While there are many of these words in Thai, two of the most important are ครับ (krap) and ค่ะ (ka). If you are male you use ครับ (krap) and females use the word ค่ะ (ka).

The ending particles are often used at the end of a statement and are a way to show respect to the person you are talking to. Here is a list of basic phrases showing how to use these words that are appropriate in the majority of situations:

  • Hello – สวัสดีครับ/ค่ะ (sawat dii krap/ka)
  • How are you? – เป็นอย่างไงบ้างครับ/ค่ะ? (bpen yaang ngai bahng krap/ka)
  • Thank you – ขอบคุณครับ/ค่ะ (kop kun krap/ka)
  • I’m sorry – ขอโทษครับ/ค่ะ (kor toht krap/ka)
  • Yes – ใช่ครับ/ค่ะ (chai krap/ka)
  • No – ไม่ใช่ครับ/ค่ะ (mai chai krap/ka)
  • No problem – ไม่เป็นไรครับ/ค่ะ (mai bpen rai krap/ka)

Another important way Thais show respect to one another is through the use of kinship terms such as ลุง (lung) meaning uncle or ป้า (bpaa) meaning aunt. These words can refer to family members but will often be used to address ones who are outside of your family as well to show respect and closeness.

If you are meeting someone for the first time and would like to show a high level of respect you can use the title คุณ (khun) which is the equivalent of Mr. or Mrs. in English. For those you are getting to know better you can address them using the following kinship terms:

  • Older sibling (male or female) – พี่ (pii)
  • Younger sibling (male or female) – น้อง (nohng)
  • Uncle (father or mother’s older brother) – ลุง (lung)
  • Aunt (father or mother’s older sister) – ป้า (bpaa)
  • Aunt / Uncle (mother’s younger brother or sister) – น้า (naa)
  • Aunt / Uncle (father’s younger brother or sister) – อา (aa)

As you can see the system can be quite complex and takes a bit of time to master as you need to quickly assess the nature of your relationship with a person before you decide on the proper title to use.

Religion in Thailand

According to the most recent census data, 85-95 percent of Thai people are Theravada Buddhists with another 5-10 percent claiming to be Muslim. Other groups include small numbers of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Taoists, and Confucians.

The influence of Theravada Buddhism is seen throughout the country with over 40,000 temples or วัด (wat) spread throughout the nation. Several important days in the Buddhist religion have been designated as national holidays, these include Makha Bucha, Visakha Bucha, and Asahna Bucha day. Perhaps the most famous is the Songkran new year festival which has become a country-wide holiday marked by the soaking of one another with water.

Buddhist ceremonies also play a large part in daily life in the country with traditions such as ตักบาตร (tak baht), the giving of alms to monks, taking place every morning at sunrise.

Thai Food

Thai food has become famous around the world for its delectable curries, stir-fries, soups, and salads that combine bold flavors and fresh ingredients.

Thailand is one of the largest rice-producing countries in the world with just under 20 million tons being projected to be grown in 2022. It is a staple of the cuisine and is a huge part of the Thai diet.

Rice is often consumed with a stir-fry of meat and vegetables that is often flavored with endless combinations of Thai chilis, garlic, soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, holy basil, sugar, and lime.

Popular proteins include chicken, pork, and fish. Coconut features heavily in curries and other soups such as ต้มข่า (tom kha). Fruits such as green papaya are popular and are used in one of Thailand’s most beloved dishes ส้มตำ (som tam).

Just the Beginning

Thai culture is fascinating and incredibly rich in history and nuance. It would be impossible to cover every facet of the beautiful Thai people in a single article. Whether you are interested in the language, food, or history of Thailand, taking the time to get to know more about the Thai people can be a very rewarding experience.

If you would like to learn more about the Thai language, check out these articles:

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Jarek Lewis

Language and Travel Writer

Jarek is a language learning and travel writer from California. He has traveled to 30 countries and spent several years living abroad in Asia.

Speaks: English, Thai, Spanish

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