Thai People

This page will attempt to concisely cover Thai people culturally, and their general nature today. There is a much longer history of the "Thai" people in on another page, the origin of the majority Tai (aka Dai) people historically and their relatively recent migration into Thailand (in Common Era times), other indigenous non-Tai populations in Thailand who now identify as "Thai", and their general nature today.

There have been books written about Thai people and how to deal with them in personal and business realms. I'm not out to write a book and reinvent the wheel here. My sources are direct experience living and working in Thailand since 1994, and largely academic and scientific papers (such as DNA analyses, archaeological evidence, and how it fits into the same for the broader region) rather than journalism and marketing sources which are often incorrect and slanted.

Of course, not all Thai people are the same, so it would be nonsense to say that all Thai people are one way or another. In this article I describe average or typical Thai people, and the tendencies of the culture relative to others in the world. Nonetheless, there are always exceptions and all sorts.

There are variations in Thai culture depending on where you are -- in a suburban community vs. in an expat go-go bar, in an office, in the country, and which region of Thailand. The variations are not great, except if you go to the go-go bars (where there are many crude, aggressive, mercenary, selfish, and greedy people, albeit less than equivalent places in other countries, so I hear).

The values and traits of Thai people include the following, though in city business, things can vary a lot more:

  • Relaxed, not in a hurry about anything, cannot be hurried
  • Polite interaction, pleasant
  • Gentle and sensitive
  • Family, friends, community and good food are most important
  • Being happy is important for many of them
  • Have fun ("sanuk") is common in entertainment areas, but different upcountry, much toned down
  • Avoid conflict, keep your cool, don't lose your temper, think things thru
  • In case of conflict, stay cool and reasonable, and compromise
  • Follow the authority(s) -- much more ingrained than in critical thinking western cultures, moreso in older Thais
  • Conform fairly well, but many risk bending the rules when seemingly benign, to just get things done
  • Tolerate different kinds of people
  • Don't like to kill anything, not even bugs and pests, unless to eat

Some people think they can come to Thailand and throw money around to get Thai people to do things. Sure, you can find many Thai people like that, especially in tourist and commercial centers, because those places have attracted that kind of people. However, it will be a much lower percentage than in other countries, and the results may not be the same. In tourist entertainment areas, money has much more power in manipulating people quickly that it does in business and upcountry. Once you get a little bit outside of those areas, many Thai people simply don't react to money that way, and there's a lot more sincerity of intent to provide a fair service.

Forcefulness and ruling by fear have even less longterm results than in other parts of the world. Notably, Thais are very good at cooperating with each other to cover up things from the boss and avoiding anger, confrontation, and loss of face for somebody. They also tend to quit jobs regardless of pay if they don't like the environment. However, like in many other parts of the world, the stick works better than the carrot with many rote workers, so fear of an angry boss can play a role in getting things done right.

Thais don't tend to be self-starters or very creative people (except at humorous things). There aren't many inventions in the world from Thailand. While some products are improved here, many others are just made more cheaply which includes cutting corners on quality.

Discipline must be maintained in a workplace. What tends to work best is constant auditing whereby they know they are being audited, and a little bit of fear of the big boss. Not too much fear or they will go crazy and leave, but not too little fear or "when the cat's away, the mice will play." Be firm, yet polite. To be respectable, you should be respectful.

If confrontation is necessary, it is extremely important to do it in private, not in front of other people. Thais are much more sensitive to "saving face", which is much more important in Thai culture than in European descended cultures. It's important everywhere, but much more important with Thais.

If you learn the language, then you will learn the "polite particles" in the Thai language for which no equivalent exists in Western society. (Learning the Thai language and customs is a good way to learn the culture.)

Thai culture is fairly homogenous, compared to many other countries and regions of the world. It is remarkable that the Thai language is the native language of the indigenous people over such a large country, approximately 1500 km by 500 km. (In fact, the Lao (Laos) language is very similar to the Thai language, using essentially the same written characters and most of the same words. The Thai language also extends into the southernmost edge of China, and the Thai language group extends into Vietnam, northern Myanmar, and some pockets as far as northeast India.)

The "religion" is Buddhism (and there has never been a war or fighting over Buddhism in Thailand), which over 90% of Thais call themselves. The main exception is in the small southernmost provinces bordering Malaysia which are predominantly Muslim. There are also some Muslim oases spread around. The Muslims come from different sources and subcultures.

The homogeneity of Thailand's culture and language has contributed to the peaceful and smooth nature of Thai people.

Thai Names

Thais are given a nickname by their family at a very young age, and this is what family, friends, and familiar associates call each other. This name is NOT a legal name, and does not exist in official or legal paperwork.

Thais are given a legal first name and surname at birth, but no middle name. When you first know a Thai person in an office or other fairly formal setting, then you address them as Khun [Firstname]. Later, this may switch to their nickname.

However, in very informal settings, Thai people will introduce themselves by their nickname only, and you may never know their real name unless you ask.

The nicknames are usually one syllable words though some are two syllable and sometimes three. Their translations mean silly things like "shrimp", "baby chicken", "eyes", "gift", and lots of other things.

Regional Differences

There are some slight regional differences between Thai people as they see each other. Much of this is based on the demographic history of subpopulations of Thailand. To be extremely brief here, the main origin of Thai people are the Tai (aka "Dai") race which apparently trace back to either Taiwan, or else in China near Taiwan and also immigrated into Taiwan. These people were mostly mountain valley dwellers, and spread around southern China, northern Vietnam, and westward to northern Myanmar and even northeastern India. When the Han and Mongol Chinese expanded into southern China, there were major conflicts with the Tai and other races there, leading to mass migrations of Tai down into Lao and Thailand in major waves starting roughly around 1200 years ago, wave after wave.

Central Thailand already had a Buddhist culture with a varied population base of indigenous peoples, including the Mon from what's now southern Myanmar, and migrants up from the south. Buddhism had brought in educational institutions and Pali writing. After that, the Khmer Hindu kingdom from northeastern Cambodia had recently expanded politically into Thailand quite extensively, and ruled for a few hundred years, but was collapsing. The Khmers brought in a lot of engineering skills and projects, but their religious monuments and taxes were their demise. The Khmer expansion was mainly political, not so much demic (demographic DNA).

By this time, the Tai people had immigrated in such huge numbers and grown in population that the Tai language and customs had come to predominate in the northern half of Thailand, and extended into pockets well into the south. The Sukhothai kingdom in north central Thailand is seen as the origin of what is now Thailand, as it standardized the alphabet (a merge of Khmer, Pali, and Sanskrit alphabets) and created institutions which started nation building, though the power center later moved to Ayuthaya in central Thailand closer to the sea. There was also the Lanna kingdom to the northwest, based on another Tai subpopulation.

The Tai people adopted the Buddhist culture from the pre-Khmer era (and actually, the Khmers in Cambodia adopted modest Buddhism after the collapse of their kingdom, with a lot of resentment over the previous heavy taxes and excess building of extravagant Hindu temples...).

The Petchabun mountains in central Thailand, two major mountain ranges running north-south, split northwestern and northeastern Tai populations, and their language dialects and subcultures drifted quite a bit.

Thais from the northwest are seen as the most compassionate, peace loving, and soft, and are often employed in the hospitality business. This was influenced by major trade routes thru the region.

Thais from the northeast had previously been the poorest on average though that has changed dramatically since I arrived in 1994 whereby it's now a relatively well to do region. The northeasterners still tend to be the most resilient as well as the best labor pool for lower level jobs.

A very large percentage of Thais in the northeast are much closer to the Lao people in Laos / Lao Peoples Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) (due to French colonization of Lao, Vietnam, and Cambodia) and Lao is historically where massive numbers of the Tai / Dai peoples migrated through, whereby the area in northeastern Thailand is a merge between Lao (Laotian) and Thai culture, especially due to the central Thai military forcing a mass migration from Lao in the early 1800s after a political revolt (long story). Many Lao words are spoken within Thai sentences there, and if you get into the countryside, the informal language becomes much more "Lao". It's actually called "Isan" language, which is the proper word to use instead of "Lao", but the word Isan was introduced in the latter part of the 1800s when the French were taking over large tracts of land in "Lao" and threatening to include what's now northeastern Thailand, so the Thai authorities officially changed the name of the region from "Lao" to the non-Lao name "Isan" and instituted a lot of other quick measures to instill "Thai" there... The name "Isan" is a Pali word meaning "northeast", as they wanted to avoid a Lao word. It worked, basically. The Thais were not able or willing to defend land across the Mekong river. French Indochina became Vietnam, Cambodia, and "Laos". (The French added the "s" to Laos.)

Thais from the south (down the western peninsula) tend to be more independent minded and a bit more assertive. This is a long coastline and you can see in their features that there is a lot of immigrant blood in them from other parts of the region, not just bordering Malay but also from other populations in the region. Similar things can be said about parts of the southeast along the coast line and towards Cambodia, but the southeast is a small part of the population. Khmer language is spoken in many places near the border with Cambodia.

Before the French and British colonized adjacent territories, there were many more dialects of the Thai language, as well as variations in the writing, and mixes of other languages, largely from Pali and Sanskrit writings and speech. Due to the urgent need for nation building, central Thai writing and language was quickly enforced nationwide and alternative scripts officially suppressed. Even though there were strong administrative measures to homogenize Thai culture, local variations in culture and spoken language still exist significantly. The peoples in the various regions don't conflict with each other, and Thailand is a peaceful and united country, but you can still see the fairly small differences in subcultures when you travel.

Bangkok is populated mostly by people from all over Thailand who came to Bangkok for work or higher education.

In the big city of Bangkok, Thais tend to be much less community oriented, like people in any big city in the world. There are very significant differences between city people and country people in Thailand, but in informal settings, you can see a lot of their ethnic nature.

Chinese Thais

There have been many Chinese immigrants over the past few hundred years. Many Thai families have Chinese blood in them. In most of them, you cannot see any cultural difference; nonetheless, in MANY partly or wholly "Chinese Thai" families there is a MAJOR difference between them and mainstream Thais.

The Thai culture and gene pool largely came from waves of Tai immigrants out of southern China. These are not considered "Chinese". When many people think of Chinese, they are thinking of Han and other major Chinese peoples. The Tai were, and still are, a tiny minority in southern China.

By "Chinese Thai", we are referring to more northern and eastern Chinese who migrated to Thailand and then intermixed with the Tai race.

The mountains of southern China were one factor in this, being natural barriers. It was the expanding Chinese empires from the 700s to the 1200s, and Mongol invasions, which drove waves of Tais south, those choosing not to fight nor to endure. (Many Tais did fight and die at the hands of the expanding Chinese and Mongol empires, but I would guess that the local gene pool is mainly those who avoid fighting my choosing migration instead.) This is discussed in the section on Thai history, but for here, I mainly want to make a big distinction between Tai/Lao and "Chinese".

Most Chinese came to Thailand due to crop failures in China or just looking for better opportunities overseas, and so many arrived destitute. They came down the Mekong River, or boats at sea, or just long land migrations. Most of the immigrants actually didn't leave offspring, but many did survive and thrive here based on sheer effort and smarts.

A large subset of surviving Chinese immigrants have created descendants instilled with a strong work ethic and who value education. When you look at the top people in the banks, business, and society, you will see a disproportionate percentage of Chinese Thais.

It is a nice blend of work ethic, education, and pleasant Thai ways.

There are some interesting studies about why Thailand has achieved a relatively high per capita income for the Asian region, and modernity with good infrastructure, compared to other countries, despite the fact that Thailand was the only country in the region never colonized.

One of the most interesting analyses is that it's because the Thai people were much more tolerant of immigrants, and readily assimilated them into Thai society, rather than the usual tribal ways of bigotry, xenophobia, resistance and overly nationalistic laws against immigrants. The old Thai kings especially fostered the assimilation of immigrants.

(Of course, the United States did likewise in the 1700s. Also, 2500 years ago, Rome was originally a low class poor town in Italy, but was known as the most tolerant and hospitable town for immigrants.)

Chinese Thais who are descended from Chinese immigrants generally identify as "Thai", not as "Chinese". They also tend to identify as "Chinese Thai" but the vast majority consider that a much weaker identification than "Thai".

Pure Thais are generally known for being gentle, polite, tolerant, and hospitable. This hospitality extends into the present time, which is a major reason why Thailand is a favored destination for tourists and businesspeople alike. This includes myself, who has travelled around Asia and settled down in Thailand! I find the native culture interesting and nice, especially upcountry, but the cities and their suburbs are much more popular due to their conveniences and more international standards of living.

See also the section on the history of Thailand.

 > History, culture, situation > Thai people

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