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Introduction to Thailand
History
The earliest civilisation in Thailand is believed to have been that of the Mons in central Thailand, who brought a Buddhist culture from the Indian subcontinent. In the 12th century, this met a Khmer culture moving from the east, the Sumatran-based Srivijaya culture moving north, and citizens of the Thai state of Nan Chao, in what is now southern China, migrating south. Thai princes created the first Siamese capital in Sukhothai, later centres in Chiang Mai and, notably, Ayuthaya.

The Burmese invaded Siam in both the 16th and 18th centuries, capturing Chiang Mai and destroying Ayuthaya. The Thais expelled the Burmese and moved their capital to Thonburi. In 1782, the current Chakri dynasty was founded by King Rama I and the capital was moved across the river to Bangkok.

In the 19th century, Siam remained independent by deftly playing off one European power against another. In 1932, a peaceful coup converted the country into a constitutional monarchy, and in 1939 Siam became Thailand. During WW II, the Thai government allowed Japanese troops to occupy Thailand. After the war, Thailand was dominated by the military and experienced more than twenty coups and countercoups interspersed with short-lived experiments with democracy. Democratic elections in 1979 were followed by a long period of stability and prosperity as power shifted from the military to the business elite.

In February 1991 a military coup ousted the Chatichai government, but bloody demonstrations in May 1992 led to the reinstatement of a civilian government with Chuan Leekpai at the helm. This coalition government collapsed in May 1995 over a land-reform scandal but replacement Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-archa was no better. Dubbed a 'walking ATM' by the Thai press, he was forced to relinquish the prime ministership just over a year later after a spate of corruption scandals. Ex-general and former deputy PM Chavalit Yongchaiyudh headed a dubious coalition until late 1997, when veteran pragmatist Chuan Leekpai retook the reins.

In 2000, Thaksin Shinawatra and his 'Thai Loves Thai' party had a landslide victory in national elections. Thailand's new leader is popular, but is embroiled in a scandal involving allegedly false declarations of assets that could cost him the premiership. The controversy is grist for Thai cynics who will tell you that, despite all the leader-swapping, things never change. Widespread vote-buying and entrenched corruption make a joke of democracy, and until this is rectified Thailand's claims to democratic status and political stability will remain as shaky as ever.

In 1997 the Thai baht pretty much collapsed, dragging the economy (and many other South-East Asian economies) down in a screaming heap. In August the International Monetary Fund stepped in with a bailout package of austerity measures, which - although it slowed Thailand's growth dramatically and hit the poor hardest - seemed to have turned things around by early 1998. By the turn of the new century, Thailand's economy had stopped going into free fall, but rebuilding had only just begun. Genuine attempts to weed out corruption seem underway, but the poverty-stricken members of Thailand are still wary of promises and agitating for more reforms.

Over recent months, the relatively new Thai Rak Thai Party (Thais Love Thais), led by Thaksin Shinawatra, emerged as a force in Thai politics and saw many sitting MPs defect to its ranks. In parliamentary elections (January 2001), Thai Rak Thai trounced Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai's democrats and will form a new coalition government in Thailands first election under a new constitution designed to reduce electoral fraud. Nonetheless, allegations of corruption caused the Electoral Commission to run revotes in sixty-two constituencies.

Location, Geography & Climate
Thailand is the geographical heart of South-East Asia. The infamous golden triangle, located at the nation's northernmost point, is where Thailand's borders meet those of both Laos and Myanmar (Burma). The border with Myanmar continues to the west and then south as far as the Malay peninsula, much of which is occupied by Thailand. On the east, the border with Laos meanders southeast along the Mekong River until it reaches Cambodia, which is due east of Bangkok, the Thai Capital. In the south is the Gulf of Thailand. Roughly the size of France (200,000 sq. miles), Thailand is composed of four main regions. The northern mountainous region contains numerous ruins and temples, the ancient city of Chieng Mai, and Thailand's highest peak, Doi Inthanon. This region is also home to the hill tribes of Thailand, distinct ethnic groups which settled in the area thousands of years ago after migrating from as far away as Tibet and central China. The north-east of Thailand occupies the semi-arid Korat plateau, the most desolate and least-visited part of the country. An interesting blend of Thai, Lao, and Khmer influences characterise the culture of the Korat. Central Thailand, which consists of the fertile plains surrounding the Chao Phraya River, is the country's most populous region and its rice basket. Thailand's alluring and congested capital city of Bangkok is located along the banks of the Chao Phraya, near the river's outlet into the Bight of Bangkok and the Gulf of Thailand. The southern region of Thailand, which stretches for hundreds of miles along the Malay peninsula, abounds with stunning beaches and scores of tropical islands.

Thailand can be an extremely hot and soggy place. Its tropical climate is divided into three seasons: cool in November to February, hot in March to May, and rainy in June to October. The seasons are more extreme in the northern regions, where the dry heat can grow quite intense in late spring and the cool can become cold in the mountains. The rainy season is no detriment to travel in Thailand, as the rains can be cool and refreshing.

People
Today Thailand has a population of 64 million people, the vast majority of whom are of Thai ethnicity. Significant minorities of Chinese, Malay, Khmer, Mons, and various hill tribes also reside in Thailand, in addition to tens of thousands of refugees in border camps from the more troubled countries of South-East Asia.

Buddhism
is the dominant religion in Thailand, although a variety of tribal religions continue to be practiced. Thailand's people regard their royal family with a respect bordering on awe. The main language in Thailand is Thai, although Lao, Chinese, Malay and English are also spoken by significant numbers of people.

 

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