History, Culture, Situation
Thailand is an unusual country in the region in several ways, including these two:
The "Thai" people and language are not pure but are actually a mix of ethnicities and languages.
The Tai / Dai / Tai-Kadai / Daic / Kra-Dai language group (it's called various things in different places), which includes Thai, is also concentrated in Lao (Laos), parts of southern China, part of northern Vietnam, part of northern Myanmar, and a trace in northeastern India. The Thai language in Thailand also incorporates many words with origins in Indian languages, Khmer, and Mon. The Lao national language is very close to Thai, both written and spoken. Thai is actually a southern dialect of the Tai language group.
The Tai ethnic people emigrated in waves from an area in deep southern China, with a large peak between around the 700s to the 1200s C.E., who brought their language, ethnic name, and culture with them. They merged with the established indigenous population which was heavily Mon and various other ethnicities including Khmer, and the languages merged, too. Modern day DNA studies reflect a diversity with regional variations, though the Tai percent is generally heavier as you go northwards.
Nonetheless, if you ask a wide variety of people, including those whose recent ancestors migrated from different parts of China, India, and other places, how they identify themselves, they will say "Thai", even if not genetically Tai at all. This reflects the remarkable sociopolitical assimilation of the different ethnicities, and what being "Thai" has come to mean, which is more cultural and political than ethnic. Thailand has long been known to be a hospitable place where immigrants are accepted and assimilated, and can easily take on an identity of belonging to the Thai cultural and political people.
There is "demic" (demographic) expansion of a language by DNA movements of people, and then there is "cultural" expansion of a language and other things by absorption of the customs of a minority of immigrants from other places. For an example of cultural diffusion, in Malaysia, a former British colony, there isn't much British DNA, but the language is now romanized into A-z, there are many English derived words, and many customs were adopted. The Thai expansion into Thailand is predominantly demic, not cultural, though it is cultural diffusion in some parts of Thailand (moreso as you go far south) which have less Tai DNA but are politically and culturally assimilated into Thailand.
The "Thai" language as it is spoken in Thailand includes many words and phrases which were not brought down by the Tai people, but already existed here, especially in central and coastal Thailand, and has washed back up north as part of the standardization of the official government Thai language and nation building. The language seems roughly around half or less Tai, and the rest coming from a diversity of sources such as Pali, which was the language of Buddhist texts and education in the Dvaravati period, Mon, Sanskrit, and Khmer.
Note also that skin tones get darker as you go south, which tells you something about the DNA mix, and you can see other differences in physical features of "Thais" as you go down south thru "Thai" speaking areas but obviously including people not of majority Tai DNA.
There is relatively little in written records about ancient Thailand. Archaeological digs going back thousands of years have turned up bronze and iron age cultures, some apparently prosperous for their times, but little is known about the people and where they came from. Some things may be extrapolated from the artifacts found including inscriptions in various written languages in the latter years, and some information exists in very old recorded observations in travelers who returned to their native countries, such as Chinese merchants and government agents.
There are some differences of seaside vs. inland events, and it is far inland that most digs have turned up things. The diversity of artifacts well over 2000 years old makes it appear that unlike much of the rest of the world, Thailand in ancient times wasn't run in a centralized, heirarchical governance with powerful kings or emperors but instead was decentralized in a sort of "heterarchical" system of little town-states and localized sociopolitical entities, until within the last couple of millennia when larger kingdoms and alliances were established. There is evidence of trade from these periods, but the diversity of artifacts and apparent customs implies a decentralized landscape of sociopolitical divisions.
Actually, as you can see in many places on Google Maps in satellite view, there are circular moats around what I would call "inland islands" in the middle of vast land areas, and these moats are spread around Thailand. (I started noticing these when my wife and I were driving around Thailand on vacations and I was navigator/co-pilot using Google Earth and Google Maps satellite view to explore where to go next and by what routes.) Many of these moats are more than 2000 years old, as covered in academic papers and often detected by advanced remote sensing techniques. The majority which have survived enough to still be discernable on satellite views, such as what I was seeing, are after year zero in the western calendar. There are countless additional ones which can be detected by other methods and which have long since silted and filled up, going back thousands of years. Many of these I have visited while driving around Thailand, just noticing some of the more apparent ones on satellite view and taking a de-tour. There isn't much there, but it's remarkable the amount of labor which must have been organized over time to dig the moats of those sizes. While there is the obvious application of defense, analysis also reveals that many were designed more for water storage and irrigation.
It's nice to just stop in these places and imagine what it may have been like thousands of years ago, right where you are standing or sitting, the people, mindsets, culture, institutions, and environment.
Rice, like other grains, tended to support civilizations with more sophisticated organization and accounting, because rice and other grains can be stored for a long time, better than fruits, vegetables, roots such as potatoes, and meats. Grains help create food security, promote long distance trade, and can result in more internal accounting and organization.
Rice farming cultures prospered in ancient times, and Thailand had early bronze and iron age establishments, but there appears to be much less and much later utilization of metals for weapons and warfare than in some other parts of the world, with artifacts of metal jewelry and tools in a higher percent.
It seems that for a long time, the people in present day Thailand resisted foreign domination while still absorbing positive foreign aspects.
Modern Thais are known for their relatively hospitable, compromising, and peaceful nature. This may reflect their relatively recent (~2000 years or so) anthropological history of a lack of genocidal conquests and harsh kingdoms as are found in some other parts of the world. For sure, there were wars and battles, but not of the scale seen in some other places in the world, and there is a lot of apparent history of compromise, peace and assimilation. The Tai people who came down from southern China were actually escaping the bloody political and social upheavals there, so maybe they were the ones more prone to avoid conflict.
The indigenous central populations were probably a mix of migrants from many sources, but had a lot of Mon cultural influences, which is a population which in current times is found mainly in parts of Myanmar around the more southern parts (and is distinct from the warrior dominated Bamar population which eventually established "Burma", whereby there have been major conflicts between the Bamar and the Mons).
In Mongol, Chinese, and Bamar conquests, there were lots of mass beheadings and genocides of indigenous populations. That kind of thing generally didn't happen in Thailand (except for Burmese mass beheadings of Siamese victims in some places in Thailand the Burmese army overran in the 1700s, which is relatively recently).
But let's back up and try to understand Thailand more along a timeline of migrations, long, long ago:
The rugged mountains of southern China created a natural barrier which helped to protect ethnicities to the south. Within that region, the Tai were a major ethnic group, with large numbers migrating west, east, and south. However, they were valley dwellers, not hilltribe people, and tended to set up agricultural areas near rivers to grow rice and other things.
It appears that the migrations of Tais into Thailand were much more gradual and assimilative than grand warrior. However, also keep in mind that the Tais actually had many subgroups and dialects. For example, the Tai language absorbed into northwestern Thailand's Lanna kingdom and the Shan state (which during British rule became an outer province of Burma) had significant differences from the Tai dialects compared to central and northeastern Thailand, and other places outside of Thailand.
Long before the large scale Tai migration, Buddhist and other influences from long reaching Indian and Sri Lankan states, permeated Thailand going back to around 2500 years ago, as witnessed by artifacts and inscriptions. Buddhism brought education, taught in Pali script.
There was apparently a considerable amount of trade with India, China, and other places, but no attempts at colonization or subjugation by those distant foreign powers. However, there was increasing Indianization as religious and artistic elements of Indian culture were adopted by locals, as well as vocabulary and alphabets.
From around the 500s to around the year 1000 A.D., a largely Mon civilization called Dvaravati dominated central Thailand, and Dvaravati artifacts and culture predate this period by a few hundred years, too. This was another Buddhist culture, and played a major role in establishing Buddhism in the region. They lived in moated settlements, like communities which predated this period. The word Dvaravati means "that which has gates".
There are various scripts by Chinese monks and other visitors referring to this Dvaravati civilization, and the Dvaravati government sent three diplomatic missions to China. There are some coins or medals which were found, and which have written upon them "Meritorious Deed of the Ruler of Dvaravati". This civilization had many moated settlements going up rivers in central Thailand and extending northward, with major settlements in U-Thong and seaside Nakorn Pathom. They may have mined gold in U-Thong and AngThong. (The word for "gold" in Thai is "thong".)
How far northwest and northeast the influence of this civilization reached is not known, but it was known as mainly a central Siam civilization, largely based along rivers, with a lot of trade. It extended largely up the Chao Phraya and Tha Chin river basins, though maybe not as far as Sukhothai in the northwest.
However, you can see the remains of a large Dvaravati city in Phetchabun province, called Sri Thep, far inland, just south of the northcentral mountains. (Not much remains of this place except lots of foundations, remnants of walls, and a decayed major temple a short distance away which you can walk up and which is quite impressive.) There is also the large Muang Sema settlement in Korat. One of the furthest northeastern old Dvaravati works is a standing Buddha in Chaiyaphum which was found on a mound (in what is now Khon Sawan). It has Dvaravati artistic style, though it was apparently updated by Khmer style later.
However, many of these "Dvaravati" settlements actually predate the Dvaravati culture, some by a very long time, with iron age moated settlements, so it is more as if the Dvaravati culture spread into pre-existing settlements and then built upon them.
Most modern scholars see Dvaravati is a sociopolitically decentralized set of city-states rather than a kingdom with one ruler of all, but operating as a civilization in trade and cultural interactions.
Far away in another realm, some large groups of Tai people living around the southern border of China revolted against the established and expanding Chinese in power, starting around the 700s and continuing to at least the 1000s, but were repeatedly defeated, resulting in tens of thousands of beheadings of Tai fighters by the Chinese victors in two separate incidents. The Mongols led by the Khans conquered southern China near the Tais in the 1200s.
The waves of Tai people who came into Thailand from the 700s to 1200s are believed to be the Tais trying to avoid or escape from the domination of the Chinese and/or the fighting and bloodshed going on there including from the Mongol invasions.
The Tais were not Buddhists when they arrived. They brought animist beliefs. However, the Tais absorbed Buddhist customs and ways as they assimilated with the Dvaravati civilization which was probably based on Mon and other ancestry. You can still see some of these animist beliefs today, mixed in with Buddhism in Thailand.
Meanwhile, the Khmers from present day Cambodia conquered the Dvaravati civilization shortly after the year 1000. The Khmers were Hindu, not Buddhist, and ruled over a very large part of Thailand during their heyday, all the way up into Laos, and down partway into Malaysia. The Khmers built a lot of Hindu temples but Hinduism didn't take root in Thailand, and Buddhism held its ground in the culture.
Going back before that, the Khmers are thought to have genetically come from southern Chinese immigrants going back at least 4000 years (2000 B.C.) plus migrants from India. Their traditions, customs, and religion were mainly Indian Hindu, and their writings were derived from phonetic Indian (not Chinese logographic). Cambodia had its subcultures, with maritime traders along the coasts and rice based civilizations inland. There were clashes and back and forth invasions between groups inside Cambodia, but generally not significant clashes between Cambodia and parts of present day Thailand, before around the year 1000. Cambodia was eventually united as one kingdom around the early 800s. This great kingdom expanded into Thailand, sometime after the year 1000, and also built Angkor Wat around the 1100s. There are many, many big Khmer ruins spread around Thailand from this period.
However, the Khmer kingdom started to collapse in the late 1100s and into the 1200s, for various reasons (overbuilding of grand temples for Hindu deities, resistance to taxes, general revolt, the death of a charismatic Khmer king, various internal issues in the traditional Cambodian heartland, and an attack of the capital, Angkor Wat, by another Hindu kingdom to the east from present day central Vietnam).
Angkor Wat, which is the largest religious monument in the world, was built in the early 1100s. It was built for the Hindu god Vishnu. (The Khmers built many grand religious buildings for Hindu gods around Siam, too.) Angkor Wat is located in Siem Reap province beside Siem Reap city. "Siem Reap" translates to "Siam conquered". Angkor Wat was built in the capital city of the Khmer Kingdom at that time.
Remarkably, the Khmer kingdom converted to Buddhism shortly after its downfall as a great empire. Buddhism had always existed to some extent in the Khmer kingdom, and some Khmer kings were not only friendly towards Buddhism but also helped promote Buddhism, but big temples the Khmers built in Thailand were for Hindu gods, as in Cambodia. Buddhism gained strength in the Khmer kingdom during the few hundred years of the Khmer conquest of Siam, though the Khmer empire was still Hindu. The final conversion happened after another Hindu kingdom, who were Chams from central Vietnam, invaded and sacked Angkor Wat in the late 1100s. The Chams didn't take over, though, and eventually departed.
The Khmer civilization underwent many changes, including away from worshiping god deities, and into Buddhism and grassroots things more for the public good. It was a sudden and nonviolent revolution of society at all levels. Khmer values switched towards social tranquility instead of striving for power and wealth, modest religious symbols in contrast to the grand ones of the past, and building practical institutions and places for the public good. Big monument building came to an abrupt halt. Buddhist schools and literacy spread. Power decentralized.
The collapse of the Khmer empire created a vacuum of power in the area now called Thailand, which a new indigenous Siamese group filled, starting in Sukhothai by the ruler Sri Indraditya, also known as Si Inthrathit. These people were Buddhists. The third king of this new succession was Ramkhamhaeng.
The Thai state was established in 1238 in Sukhothai (now a city and province in north central Thailand). King Ramkhamhaeng standardized the modern Thai alphabet, reducing the number of characters in the alphabet which was previously huge and redundant, derived from a mix of sources, mainly Sanskrit derived writings and Pali from Buddhist texts, from about 76 to 44 characters. The Khmer alphabet played a large part in this. King Ramkhamhaeng was a very righteous and popular king, who was accessible by the common man, and expanded various institutions.
The Sukhothai Kingdom expanded, and Tai culture with it, by various alliances over the next few centuries, whereby peaceful trade and migration were fairly strong. The modern Thai nation consists chiefly of the merge between Sukhothai and two rival but ethnically close kingdoms, the economically dominant one centered at the ancient trading center of Ayutthaya just about an hour up the river from Bangkok and far downstream from Sukhothai and named after the ancient Indian city Ayodhya, and the Lanna kingdom centered around Chiang Mai in the mountainous northwestern part of Thailand which was heavily Tai, though there were some significant battles with the Lanna over time. The Tai of the Lanna kingdom were somewhat separated, but similar to, the Tai who came down to the eastern part of Thailand through Lao.
Over the next few centuries, the center of Siamese civilization, economic activity, and governance shifted from Sukhothai to Ayuthaya. The original long name of Ayuthaya had the phrase "... Dvaravati Sri Ayuthaya" in it, which shows the desire for continuity from the civilization prior to the Khmer conquest.
There is a long mountain range running north-south in north central Thailand which caused relative isolation between the northwestern and the northeastern parts of Thailand, which had both become heavily populated with Tai peoples, whereby their language dialects diverged.
There were continued battles with some of the Khmers, until eventually the Thais went in and overran Angkor Wat in 1431, engaged in widespread destruction, and marched off around 90,000 inhabitants, including cultural leaders and treasures. The Thais didn't leave much for the Khmer people left behind in Angkor Wat, and the subsequent Khmer ruler moved the Khmer capital to Phnom Penh, which is much further to the south. That put an end to Khmer invasions of Thailand, though the Thais continued subjugating large parts of Cambodia until the Khmers requested the French come in and protect them in 1863. Cambodia essentially became a French colony after that, and the French started taking back parts of present day Cambodia from the Thais.
There are lots of details beyond the scope of this article, but generally, the Siam kingdom became very large due to the alliances of many groups, and was much larger than today. Many Tai descended ethnic groups are established in northern Burma, such as the Shan, and these people were part of the Thai kingdom until the British, as colonists of Myanmar, drew borders to take over huge swaths of Siam in the 1800s. Likewise, the French took over Laos, whereby the border is largely along the Mekong River, but includes a large bite on the Thailand side of the Mekong River in north central Thailand. There was also aforementioned Cambodia where the French rolled back Thai claims. The Thai kings had to negotiate away vast areas in order to hold off the colonists, in land for peace deals.
Before the era of western colonization of southeast Asia, the capital of Siam became Ayutthaya for a few hundred years. Ayutthaya was also a major trading center in southeast Asia, and in fact a city with one of the largest populations in the world at the time, with some estimates exceeding a million people. It was known as a very cosmopolitan place, and even the royal court was known for its absorption of foreign advisers and delegations of positions of influence to some foreigners, including westerners.
That came to an end when a large Burmese army waged a series of attacks in the 1750s and 1760s, eventually surrounded the city to cut it off from the outside world, and finally invaded, looted its valuables, heavily damaged its structures, and burned the city to the ground before taking its loot back to Burma. The carnage was awesome, and the city remained abandoned immediately afterwards. The sheer destruction was long reaching. The Burmese also beheaded many indigenous people along the way.
Thus, Siam has had just two main historical adversaries, Cambodia around the time of the founding of Siam, and then a long running war against Burma mostly after that time, since the Bamar warriors took over Burma. The ruthlessness of the Burmese has been most remarkable, unlike the Khmers. However, the Thais have never given up in their wars with the Burmese, despite major setbacks at times, and always rebounded and fought to regain their territory.
Bangkok was a downstream customs post at the time that Ayuthaya was destroyed by the Burmese, but the new line of kings turned it into the new capital city with better defenses, starting in 1769. Being located near the mouth of the river, which was advantageous for trade and immigration, it could try to pick up where Ayutthaya left off to a considerable extent, as best it could.
So that brings us to the late 1700s, around the same time as the independence of the United States of America and the French Revolution.
After the destruction of Ayutthaya, war and battles with the Burmese continued, including invasions by Burmese armies trying to take over big parts of Siam, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, but Siam eventually prevailed and basically took back the large areas the Burmese armies had sacked and temporarily taken over, which were spread along the long border including far south into Phuket and beyond, restoring Siam's territory.
The British started taking parts of Burma near India in 1826, and Burma started to focus more on conflicts with the British. As the French took more of Indochina, the British sought to annex Burma, which it completed at the end of the third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885. Burma had stopped fighting Siam by 1855.
The Lao kingdom was allied with Siam against Burma, but felt too subjugated (I will skip historical accounts of why here), and when the Burmese threat subsided, a Lao leader eventually rebelled in 1826-1828, and tried to reinstitute their own separate kingdom. However, this included unnecessarily invading Siam, whereby a Lao army provocatively reached almost all the way to Bangkok, but were eventually repelled, thanks largely to the Siamese having just bought many rifles, an armament the Lao didn't have. The Siamese fought them all the way back to Vientiane, and then depopulated and marched its people into Siam, which further washed Tai ethnic population into Thailand (though another Tai migration wasn't the main intent), largely to be used as labor in agriculture and some projects.
King Rama 4 (1851-1868 reign) and King Rama 5 (1868-1910 reign) kept the western powers at bay by careful diplomacy and modernization, but also by ceding huge tracts of land to the British and the French. Thailand established as close a relationship with the United States as it could, to be an ally against the colonial powers.
King Rama 5, the modernizer, ascended to the throne at the age of 18 when his brilliant astronomer father, King Rama 4, died of malaria after calculating and boating out to observe an eclipse of the Sun. The reforms and modernizations of King Rama 5 were the most extensive. You will see many portraits of King Rama 5 in Thailand. Rama 5 traveled the world, abolished slavery in Thailand (no easy feat, in phases), and led many cultural and institutional developments.
Due to the threats of western dominance and colonization, the Thai kings had to quickly ramp up consolidation and administration of Siam. The Thais didn't even have borders defined, unlike western countries, but the British and French ramped that up. Siam previously just had alliances with local rulers of regions of their own influence and allegiances without clearly defined physical borders.
The central Thai language was standardized and imposed on all regions, which led to suppression of local alphabets, and requirements of administrators and educators to use central Thai. This was the beginning of the end of many Tai dialects. In the northwest in around the former Lanna kingdom, the written and spoken languages varied the most from central Thai, whereby the changes were greatest, but those were along the very mountainous area where Thailand and Burma currently meet. There are also many non-Tai hilltribe ethnicities up there, such as migrants from around Tibet.
The northeast was a more critical area because the French were planning to claim a vast region of Thai territory based on the Lao people residing there being considered "foreign" by Thais, and also treated like just war captives used as basically slave labor, whereby the French were planning to make their claim based on the difference between "Lao" and "Thai", linguistically and culturally, saying that land which was occupied by Lao speaking populations was not "Thai" territory. The French claimed to be on a "civilizing mission" to liberate the repressed "foreign" territory. King Rama 5 heard about this plan in the 1880s and started to pre-empted it. The northeast was previously called "Monthon Lao Kao" (area of white skinned Lao) so they changed the name of the region to "Isan" which in Pali means "northeast", so it became the "Isan" part of Thailand by name. Further, in that area, the alphabet for writing being used was very similar to what's now the official modern day Lao alphabet in Laos (derived from "Tai Noi"), so the central Thai alphabet was enforced in Isan and the Lao alphabet started to be repressed (though this took decades). Cities and towns also started to be renamed with Thai words.
(It is estimated that about 80% of Lao speakers are in Thailand, and that Lao makes up about 30% of the informally spoken language in homes in Thailand, practically all in the expansive northeast. The roots of about 80% of the words of central Thai and the Lao are identical or very similar so that speakers of the two dialects can usually understand each other enough, including over 100 years ago before Thai was forced upon Lao people. You can still hear this yourself by sometime traveling to Lao in modern times and try to get by on your Thai language skills. I did that fairly well in the 1990s. The other 20% of words without a shared origin can be disruptive enough that people not informally exposed (such as by living there, or YouTube or some other way) can find it difficult to conduct a smooth conversation. Fortunately, all Isan people are taught Thai so they can make the switch to accommodate. Similarly, Lao people in Laos watch a lot of Thai TV, and many would switch to Thai for me in the 1990s, though it often took effort on their part. The Lao/Tai language also extends into part of Vietnam where Tai groups settled over the centuries.)
However, back in the late 1800s during conflicts with the French, Siam had neglected Lao people and infrastructure on the other side of the Mekong River. The French, who by then controlled Vietnam to the east and Cambodia to the south, and claimed Laos to be part of Vietnam, basically invaded and separated the territory east of the Mekong and called it "Laos" in 1893. (I wouldn't call it "liberated" since it eventually became a third French colony, not part of French Vietnam nor French Cambodia. It became French "Laos" ... with an alien "s" at the end!) This was also in concert with "gunboat diplomacy" whereby the French Navy enforced a blockade of the Thai coast, got two gunboats up the Chao Phraya river to threaten to fire upon the Grand Palace, and the British did not come to the help of Siam as had been hoped. Eventually, the Lao territory was signed away for peace. The Siamese army retreated back across the Mekong. At least Isan was saved, for the most part.
Slavery was actually endemic in Thailand at the time, and had a long history. The Thais didn't behead their enemies, they instead marched them into the fields to make food, both for domestic consumption and for export to buy armaments and lots of foreign things for development. However, King Rama 5 put together a series of reforms between 1874 to 1915, to gradually abolish slavery, doing so in a way which didn't disrupt Thailand's socioeconomic establishment too much too quickly. Slavery was rampant, subjugating much of the northeastern Lao population.
The French went further and rather forcefully negotiated additional territorial concessions on the Thailand side of the Mekong, too, in 1907, which shows up as a dip into northcentral Thailand. You can see it bordering the west side of Thailand's Loei province, the east side of Chiang Rai, Phayao, and Nan provinces, and northern parts of Uttaradit and Phitsanulok. It's not a large area this side of the Mekong River, and it's very mountainous and rugged, so I would have considered it to be more symbolic and boastful of the French than practical. It's not as if they took a very agriculturally productive area, and it was relatively remote.
Of course, the French lost their colonies in southeast Asia in the 1950s. Laos eventually descended into civil war between the communists and the royalists, which ended around the same time as the end of the Vietnam War, with the communists as victors. Laos became the Lao People's Democratic Republic (and the alien "s" at the end of Laos officially ceased to exist domestically, though it's taken a while for the rest of the world to catch up to its new official name). The Lao became close to the Vietnamese, with a large influx of high level Vietnamese advisers and settlers. The Vietnamese became at odds with the Chinese, so both Vietnam and the Lao PDR cut off relationships with China. Relations with the Soviet Union also waned but those were much different than attitudes towards China. The Lao People's Democratic Republic gave up on Communism (which actually slightly predated the Gorbachev era, in an independent way). The Lao PDR became more like the pure Lao/Tai culture.
The people from Thailand and Lao get along very well in current times, so it's not as if there are any insurrections of conflicts of significance anymore. There were skirmishes in the past along the border of territory on the Thai side of the Mekong River between the Lao and Thai armies, especially during times of Communist insurgencies around the time of the Vietnam War, and occasionally about border disputes, but things became peaceful before long. Because the cultures, language, and religion are so similar, what's there to fight about?
To this day, people in Isan, especially country folks, still speak a lot of Lao. They know central Thai, of course, from school and TV, but still informally speak Lao with each other. Many Central Thai people don't understand a lot of it, so must ask the Isan people to say things again in Thai. You can travel there to this day and hear a LOT of it, and also see some different mannerisms. It's good to learn and speak some Lao informally if/when you are in such communities in Isan.
The Thais may be fortunate that the French didn't seize even more of this territory.
The Siamese seemed to get along with the British a bit better than with the French. The Siamese lost parts of northwest Thailand to the British, but the written and spoken Tai dialects differed more, and the Siamese were not as well established there as in other parts of Siam. It was losing territory which Siam had gotten back from the Burmese, and arguably belonged to the Tai people and not the Bamar Burmese. This territory, which after the British left was taken over by Burma, has long been a main area rebellious to the Burmese government, to this day. Ethnic populations in Burma such as the Karen get along smoothly and peacefully with northwestern Thais routinely, like allies.
The Thais and Malays did not have many conflicts over the centuries. The British took over Malaya (now Malaysia) in many steps between 1786 and the 1900s, whereby in the end, in a treaty with the British in 1909, the border between Thailand and Malaya was drawn near religious and cultural differences, though right through an area which had a history of having autonomy from both Thailand and Malaysia at times, and now many separatists in that area still want autonomy from both Thailand and Malaysia. That area is the root of secessionist conflict in southern Thailand to this day, whose leaders want an autonomous region called Pattani Darussalam, which would be part of neither Thailand nor Malaysia, but instead still another country in the world.
The people in that area are majority Muslim and they speak a dialect of Malay, which is very different from the Malay spoken in mainstream Malaysia today, whereby it is difficult for the Thai Malay speakers to understand spoken mainstream Malay, and vice versa. Big mountains and thick rain forests separate these people from mainstream Malays in Malaysia.
When the border was drawn with the British, the border drawn did not give this area to one or the other country but instead split it between the two countries. Thailand now has the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala, whereas Malaysia has the state of Kelantan. The language is called "Kelantan-Pattani Malay", or in Thailand it's often called bahasa Pattani, which is significantly different from the national language of Malaysia, bahasa Malaysia. Bahasa Malaysia has long been romanized into A-z instead of using arabic script, as has bahasa Indonesia, whereas bahasa Pattani often still tries to use a form of arabic script. The people over the border with Malaysia in Kelantan state have been educated in Malaysian schools to use the standard Malaysian language.
(Some of southeastern Songkhla province is also in that area of wannabe independence, but greater Songkhla province is majority Buddhist.)
The Kelantan-Pattani Malay dialect speaking Muslim majority provinces are a very small part of far southern Thailand.
There are no such continuing problems elsewhere in the rest of Thailand today.
However, there were big problems in the northeast in the 1800s, which continued into the early 1900s to a lesser extent. The problems in Isan did not end with the treaty with the French in 1907. The Isan people continued in their Lao ways, so in subsequent decades, the central Thai government in its nation building became more and more forceful in suppressing the written Lao script and enforcing central Thai culture, often with local resistance. As a result, many Lao words either became no longer written or else transliterated into Thai spellings. There was also frequent humiliation of Lao people as low class for speaking Lao instead of Thai, making fun of them in central Thailand social circles, and audiences laughing at spoken Lao. (I have witnessed this countless times.) However, upcountry, it's still normal and often proud talk locally, in a folksy way.
Elsewhere, the new series of kings continued to welcome immigrants to Thailand in the 1800s and 1900s, a huge percentage of whom were Chinese (especially Teochew Han Chinese from Canton / Guangdong, which Hong Kong and Macau are along), which helped rebuild the economy after the loss of Ayutthaya and the Burmese wars.
The Thais have long been known as a hospitable culture which peacefully absorbs foreign ideas and people, unlike many other countries whose resistance to foreigners led to rifts and conflicts. You can still see these traits to this day, but 200 years ago it started to make a huge difference in the long term success of the nation.
The influence of waves of Chinese immigrants should be weighed heavily in the economic development of Thailand. Unlike some other countries, Thailand welcomed and assimilated the Chinese, though it wasn't always pleasant at first on the street level everywhere they came, as the bad manners, lack of civility, and unwillingness to compromise of many of them did not rub well. However, many other Chinese adapted to Thai ways and assimilated. Large numbers were very poor and destitute, and never left their DNA in the local pool. However, the Chinese were generally very hard working and entrepreneurial, and intermarriages with indigenous Thais proliferated, whereby many became a nice blend of hard working yet polite, peaceful and cooperative individuals like the predominant Thai society around them, taking the best of both cultures and dropping some of the less desirable cultural traits. The offspring, even of pure Chinese ancestry, usually identified as "Thai" rather than Chinese. In the current generation, you can find many 100% or nearly 100% DNA Chinese who consider themselves "Thai" and are as gentle and civil as 100% indigenous Thais.
The pure Chinese DNA Thais who have been here for generations, and the mixed DNA Chinese-Thais, are collectively referred to as "Chinese Thais". You will find them at the tops of banks, major companies, and many positions in politics. The economic influence of Chinese Thais has far exceeded their actual percentage of DNA.
The 20th century saw huge transformations in the world, and of course Thailand was no exception, but the transformation of Thai society in its own way was dramatic.
In 1932, modernizing forces pushing for democracy resulted in the creation of a constitutional monarchy, making Thailand one of the first democratic countries in Asia. However, this began a seesaw battle between military and civilian governments which has flip-flopped countless times up to today, with the latest military coup happening in 2014. Thus, democracy in Thailand hasn't been stable. However, the tradition of democracy has been well established, and military rule in Thailand has its limits. The last two coups were bloodless. The newspapers and mass media have still been given a lot of freedom. Military rule in Thailand can't be compared to military rule in many other countries. For example, Myanmar is an extreme contrast to Thailand.
The country's name of Siam was changed to Thailand in 1939. The word "Thai" was sometimes also interpreted as meaning "free", so Thailand could be interpreted as the land or Thais or the land of the free. In the Thai language, it is ประเทศไทย or "country/nation of Thais" formally, and there's also "Mueang Thai" (yes, that old Tai word again, mueang or muang ...).
After World War 2 broke out in Europe, the Thais took advantage of the situation to militarily regain the territories they had lost to the French and the British. Later, Japan entered the war by bombing Pearl Harbor and immediately attacking countries in Asia in their own colonial efforts, including Thailand the day after Pearl Harbor.
After fighting the Japanese for just 8 hours, the Thai military commander saw the hopelessness of it and entered an armistice with the Japanese. This essentially allowed the Japanese to use Thailand as a base and to gain free passage to attack the surrounding colonies, which allowing Thailand to stay autonomous on paper, and prevent Thailand from major damages due to the war. Thailand was required to declare war on Japan's adversaries, but the Thai ambassador to the USA secretly never delivered the declaration, something overlooked by the Japanese.
The Japanese and the Thais never had a trusting relationship, and the Seri Thai (Free Thai) movement was widespread, and supported by the United States in various ways. Fortunately, Thailand was able to avoid most of the fighting during the World War. The main exception was the famous Death Railway, the effort to build a railroad from the Gulf of Thailand into Burma thru Kanchanaburi, in which vast numbers of Asian laborers died as well as many British, Australian, American, and other Allied prisoners of war.
After the Japanese lost the war, the British and French tried to gain the upper hand over Thailand based on Thailand being a formal ally of Japan, but the Americans stepped in and an agreement was made whereby Thailand would just give up the land it had taken from the British and the French so that the borders returned to what they were before World War 2.
With the rise of Communism, the United States and Thailand became close allies.
During the Vietnam War (also known as The American War in Vietnam and some other places), Thailand allowed the United States to create major air bases along its eastern border for attacks of North Vietnamese targets, as well as major logistics centers inland. However, the war was not entirely popular, and after the Americans withdrew from Vietnam, and its subsequent fall, there was tremendous pressure for the Thai government to terminate air base agreements with the Americans, whereby American military presence fell dramatically.
However, during this time, some Communist sympathizing groups arose in Thailand in the 1960s, and continued until sometime in the 1980s, at about the same time most everybody in the world had become disillusioned with Communism.
Thailand had maintained a close relationship with the United States for about 150 years, and Thai people also followed American culture like so many others in the world, so there was never any major anti-American sentiment.
After the end of the era of western colonization in the 1950s and 1960s, Thais also warmed up to other westerners.
We also saw what happened in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge ... and it's still essentially a one party state today, ruled harshly. Cambodia is quite unlike Thailand.
Laos has the most similarities with Thailand. Even though Laos went "Communist" after the Vietnam War ended, and had its Soviet alliance, and went thru various transformations and experiences, the Lao government eventually had enough of experimenting and communism not working so well, and started doing things more its own way. By the 1990s, it actually looked fairly "laissez faire" normal on the street level, at least when I went there starting in 1994 and explored around. The government seemed minimal, there were private shops and businesses all along the streets, and if you didn't know otherwise, you could be forgiven for not knowing it was a "communist" country. There wasn't a free press and all the exciting writings and debates which go with that, you couldn't just set up shop as a foreigner, and there were land ownership issues, but then again, there weren't even street signs when I went there, almost the whole downtown of the capital city was dirt roads, and the people were generally relaxed, normal, and hospitable to me as a foreigner.
Visiting Laos at that time was like going back in time to earlier Tai culture. I also rented an ordinary motorcycle, dressed in Lao clothes I had bought at the market (including long sleeves to cover my hairy arms), and drove into the mountains whereby people wouldn't know I'm foreign ... until I took my helmet off. It was such a peaceful, cooperative, and warm society. They were all smiles and tried their best to be hospitable to me, everywhere. This had a deep impact on me about the culture.
The Lao alphabet is very similar to the Thai alphabet, and the languages have a lot of overlap, so no matter how ignorant you may be, it was abundantly clear that these people shared a lot with the Thai people over the border.
I also got a chance to socialize with many high level government people on my next trip (very long story), and they were generally very cooperative and hospitable. Notably, many high level government officials were often not sitting in their government office day to day. Many of them were out running their own little business(es) day to day, but also had an official position in government, kind've like a businessman in the west also being involved in a Chamber of Commerce, or some side charity or foundation. They were paid civil servants, but not paid much. They formulated policies, approved projects and budgets, and fulfilled responsibilities in government, but it wasn't like some big government dominating the society by displays of power. Quite the contrast. Actually, you didn't even see many policemen or officials on the streets, and they behaved like ordinary people, not walking with the gait and mannerisms of authority or high status. Most of the ones I met were pleasant and humble with me, though clearly very thoughtful, established, and self confident. It was like people who prefer consensus and compromise, not taking charge, self-aggrandizement, nor a smug attitude.
Lao is landlocked, poor, and borders multiple countries. I visited only the capital, Vientiane, which is on the border with Thailand, and surrounding area at that time. However, the culture seemed quite homogenous.
Thailand was so far ahead of Lao in modernity, and central and southern Thailand close to the seaside had so many outside influences, that the two countries had a lot of contrasts as regards their most developed regions. However, coming back into Thailand across that border seemed to be mainly a small difference of modernity, and northeastern Thailand seemed very culturally similar to Lao.
Thailand is a very longtime free market economy, never having gone thru socialism or communism, though having strong government funding for education and development. Chinese Thais, westerners, Japanese, and other entities had become well established in Thailand, which formed the basis for a lot of the modern Thai economy.
From 1987 to 1996, Thailand's economy was one of the fastest growing in the world.
In 1997, however, vast overbuilding of office highrise buildings and speculation in the real estate market led to a severe problem in the Thai banking system, as supply of new properties for sale and for rent far exceeded demand, resulting in insufficient occupancy as well as price drops in purchase and rental payments, so that property developers could not pay back loans, nor pay their bills to construction companies and others. Many of those loans were from overseas banks. This liquidity crisis led to Thailand taking down Asia in the Asia Economic Crash of 1997, as discussed elsewhere on this website.
Within about 5 years, the economy had recovered and was chugging along again.
In the year 2000, a new party founded by the richest businessman in Thailand, Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra, won the most seats of Parliament in an election based on a populist platform. After barely surviving a corruption court case, "Thaksin" (as he's usually referred to) became Prime Minister, and indeed the first Prime Minister to serve a full term in office. His party became the first to win an absolute majority in the subsequent election of 2004 with a whopping 75% of the seats in parliament, gaining support from both the poor masses and also much of the educated and business elite.
Things started to unravel from there as Thaksin and his party were repeatedly accused of using their majority to erode the checks and balances of the political system. Thaksin's political base increasingly shifted towards relying on the poor masses of voters, and rifts started to develop between the economic classes, as well as regions of Thailand -- northeast/north for Thaksin vs. central and south against Thaksin.
Despite his party having 75% of Parliament, in early 2006 Thaksin dissolved parliament and called a new election in a controversially short time. The election turned into a mess, as it could not be completed due to a boycott in some anti-Thaksin districts, and some Election Commission irregularities (in which some high officials eventually went to jail). Annulled, another election was called for about half a year later while a caretaker government would stay on.
However, while Thaksin was at the United Nations in New York in September 2006, the military staged a coup and took over, trying to cleanse Thailand of Thaksin, and court cases against Thaksin and his party resulted in criminal convictions and dissolution of the party, with over 100 of its executives banned from politics for 5 years.
A new election in late 2007 saw Thaksin's proxy party win the most seats in Parliament, again based on populist policies for the poor and the voting block of the mainly rural northeastern Thailand voters. However, 2008 was a tumultuous year with increasing protests in Bangkok against the government, culminating in a takeover of the international airport in November by the Yellow Shirts (themselves having some extremely questionable leaders), which crippled tourism and a lot of businesses. However, these extreme measures also thoroughly discredited the Yellow Shirts in the eyes of so many Thais, and they have faded out dramatically.
Another court case dissolved the new proxy party, which convinced the Yellow Shirts to claim victory at that time and leave the airport (not really a true victory, but the timing was right and pressure was on the judiciary), but still another proxy party was ready to become Thaksin's next vehicle with the same members of Parliament, though in a subsequent Parliamentary session there were enough deserters switching sides to put the opposition into power and Thaksin's party back out of power for the first time since the coup. This raised Abhisit Vejajiva to the position of Prime Minister.
In 2009, a protest movement called the Red Shirts which is closely associated with Thaksin organized counter protests in Bangkok.
Then, in 2010, a massive Red Shirts rally closed down most of the Bangkok Central Business District starting in March, culminating in the military dispersing them in May, at the end of which the rampaging crowd started major fires around Bangkok and Thailand. However, just like the Yellow Shirts discredited themselves with the airport seizure, there has also been a backlash and increased apprehension towards the Red Shirts.
In the election of 2011, the Thaksin derived populist Pheu Thai Party again won, with the political landscape again being red (Pheu Thai) in the poorer northern regions and blue (Democrat) and other in the southern parts. Thaksin's younger sister Yingluck became Prime Minister.
Due to various events, friction ensued. A key event was the rice pledging scheme whereby the government bought rice from farmers at above market prices, which cost the government huge amounts of money, and the operation developed a lot of questionable issues ... Further political events, including a proposed amnesty bill to benefit Thaksin, resulted in more protests and eventually a dissolution of parliament. An election was scheduled, but the Constitution Court ruled some things invalid. With society at loggerheads, another bloodless coup and military government was installed in 2014.
The main aim of the military governments has been to try to minimize the power of money in politics, such as reducing the maximum donation by any one individual or entity to 10 million baht (roughly US $ 300,000). (This is a very good thing, in my opinion.)
The military government has cracked down hard on corruption, but over the years its own budget has become highly questionable, as have things like buying an expensive submarine, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the military government also drafted a new Constitution which basically gives a limited civilian government, and the last election was controversial in its implementation.
There is actually a lot to cover here, but in short it should be noted that society has become less satisfied about the military government. While it was popular in many circles at the time, that has been eroded by some decisions by the military government and some events.
On the other hand, there is a lot of fear of what will happen if the Thaksin Shinawatra clan take over again with their populist offers to voters and especially their divisive politics. (Yes, Thailand resembles some western countries which have become increasingly divided in recent years, though in a different way.)
It has been a relatively peaceful time since 2014, but a lot of this is simply the nature of Thai people. New protests started growing in 2020, organized over internet, and these appear unstoppable. The military government seems to have one more chance to amend the Constitution and then must let go. (However, the Senate is still appointed by the military...)
The events since the advent of Thaksin Shinawatra in politics have caused conflicts in Thai society unlike ever before. Thais normally resolve their conflicts by compromise and as peacefully as they can, but the populist politics of divide and conquer have polarized society, whereby new rifts have formed along class and regional lines. How strong and serious these rifts will become has yet to be seen, but for the moment, Thailand seems to have reverted back to its peaceful ways.
The rifts are similar to what has been seen in the USA and some other places -- populist politics, divide and conquer, and one populist party trying to impose its extremist will on the entire population, more interested in their own power and self-aggrandizement than the benefit of the nation. The politics of division and polarization can be very damaging. It is a weakness of democracy.
While the military government has been able to keep the peace, it must eventually return the country to a true democracy in order continue keeping the peace, which means letting go with a system of laws and regulations which can counter "money politics" and maintain a good system of checks and balances. Whether the system of checks and balances can survive a populist majority party, if that happens, we shall see...
There are extremists in every political group, and Thai people seem to be recognizing this and maturing a lot politically, including coming to understand all the ramifications of extremism and how it affects the economy, their own livelihood, and the peacefulness of the nation.
A culture does not change a lot in a year or in a decade. Pendulums swing from one side to the other, and right now the pendulum seems to be around the center.
Normally, in Thailand, since 1932 there have been countless swings back and forth between military and civilian governments, coups and counter coups, elections resulting in changes in power groups, and protests, but the economy and vast majority of the country keep on going as if nothing had happened. Even the coup of 2006 didn't affect the vast majority of business. Thai society remained relatively peaceful.
However, that changed first with the 2008 airport shutdown by the Yellow Shirts, and the shutdown of the Bangkok central business district by the Red Shirts was also unprecedented. Fortunately, that didn't last long and things got back to normal quickly.
It seems that the general public has gotten fed up with both extremes from these two experiences, but only time will tell.
(Some things I have no plans to discuss here. There are many other news sources.)
Other sections of this website expand upon several of the topics above.
In response to an academic inquiry about the origin of the word "Siam":
There is not complete academic agreement on the origin of the name Siam, but I think it's fairly certain that the prevailing school of thought is correct: It comes from a Chinese word "sian" (or hsien) which meant "gold". The Chinese words for "sian" and "Siam" are spelled identically. (Chinese is not a phonetic language, e.g., the same spelled word in Chinese in two different parts of China can have two entirely different pronounciations.) Chinese records going back centuries before westerners arrived refer to what's present day Thailand as well as the Thai people as "Sian". There is also the Shan state and Shan people in Myanmar (Burma) along the northern Thai border between Thailand and China, and it is also thought by many of these scholars that the name Shan also came from Sian / Hsien. You can find Thai language in some parts of southern China. It's also notable that Indians called old Siam "Suvarnabhumi" which means "Land of Gold", and Suvarnabhumi (pronounced like "Suwannapoom") is the name of the new international airport in Bangkok. There is considerable historical literature referring to places in modern day Thailand which in early recorded history were centers for gold trade and perhaps the origin of some gold. In later recorded history, the Siamese were known for adorning religious icons and structures with gold in large quantities (which attracted Burmese invaders), and the Thais still rub on small, thin foil leafs of gold onto Buddha statues as everyday rituals.
Thailand was previously known as Siam, and the Thai people as Siamese, until 1939 when a constitution amendment changed it to Thailand and Thai people.
What about "Taiwan" and "Thailand"? Actually, they might be related! Some linguistics experts have noticed similarities between Austronesian languages of Pacific islanders and Tai. Many Austronesian islanders are thought to have originated by boat from Taiwan in distant history. These scholars who analyze roots of words think that Tai and Austronesian languages have a shared source, which they call Austro-Tai.
The Travel section of this website includes some of my visits to historical areas and my observations and analysis.
Additional, children pages of this current parent page:
History, culture, situation :
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