Formerly known as Siam, exotic Thailand is one of the world’s top travel destinations. Its unique culture, developing economy, and reputation for hospitality attract millions of foreigners each year.
As the only country in Southeast Asia never to have been colonized by a European power, Thailand has managed to maintain its distinctive cultural identity while emerging as a regional industry leader and international trade hub. The result is a society characteristic of the exciting contrast between tradition and modernization. Nowhere is this more apparent than Bangkok, a true global city with thousands of long-term resident expatriates from all over the world. Long known for its international party scene, the city was ranked by Travel + Leisure as the top destination for 2008. Here skyscrapers crowd amongst ancient temples whose architecture bears the influence of India, China, and Cambodia, and open-air market vendors sell the latest electronic gadgets at affordable prices. Outside the capital a more traditional lifestyle prevails, where the extended family is the backbone of the community and agriculture is the largest employer. Buddhism has had a tremendous influence throughout Thailand, with nearly 95% of Thais describing themselves as practicing Buddhists; there are a great many holy sites well worth visiting, and a long-standing community of foreigners who arrive to study the religion.
Despite bouts of political upheaval, most recently popular protests in 2008, Thailand has maintained the second largest economy in Southeast Asia. Its growth rate was the world’s highest in the decade preceding the Asian financial crisis, and has begun gradually recovering since then. It is the world’s top exporter of rice, with textiles, footwear, and other manufactured goods contributing significant revenue as well. Other major industries include appliances, computer parts, and automobiles. Tourism is vital to the country, playing a larger part in Thailand’s economy than in that of any other Asian nation.
Thailand is a multi-ethnic country. While ethnic Thais are most populous in and around Bangkok, numerous other groups have migrated to the country throughout history, most recently from Burma. Many Westerners have begun making homes there as well, attracted by the tropical climate and low cost of living; the latter makes it quite easy to retire comfortably, or even save up enough money to last through an extended trip. Finding work can be difficult in Thailand; the most common occupations for foreigners are English teaching and dive instruction. However, there are many volunteer organizations that offer opportunities in a variety of fields. These can be a great way to visit remote parts of the country, and are a good résumé builder for students and young professionals.
Thai is the official language, and is mutually intelligible with Lao. Many dialects and minority languages exist, but Central, or Standard, Thai is predominant due to its use in education. A member of the Tai-Kadai family, it has many unique characteristics that make it particularly challenging to individuals who don’t already speak a related language. Although English is universally taught in schools, there remain very few fluent speakers, especially in rural areas.