Thailand is often dubbed' the most exotic country in Asia', and with good reason. It offers a distinct culture with a rich and varied heritage, and it possesses a remarkable range of scenic beauty. Yet it is the Thais themselves, with their uncanny ability to blend a respect for the past with a delight in the modern, that makes the country truly intriguing.
Whenever the nation airline ads a new aircraft to its fleet, senior Buddhist monk. Similarly every new office building is inaugurated with propitious rites. In this strange, paradoxical blend of age-old tradition and modern dynamism lies the very essence of Thailand, the uniqueness that sets it apart.
This exotic land located almost equidistant between India and China, is a tropical country of 514,00 square kilometers (198,400 square miles) - about the same size as France. It is bordered by Burma to the west, Laos to the north, Kampuchea to the east and Malaysia to the south. Distances range from 1,650 kilometers (1,025 miles) north to south and, at the broadest point, 800 kilometers (1,550 miles) of coastline.
The population of 52.8 million (1986 estimate) is now growing at less than two percent, down from more than three percent in the 1960s, following a successful nationwide family-planning campaign. Ethnic Thais form a majority, through the area has historically been a migratory crossroads. Thus strains of Mon, Khmer, Burmese, Lao, Malay, Indian and, most strongly, Chinese stock produce a degree of ethnic diversity. Integration is such, however, that culturally and socially there is enormous unity.
Thailand's focal point is the capital, Bangkok. As the centre of all major political, administrative, commercial, industrial and financial activity it is a modern, sprawling metropolis, its skyline pierced by the thrusting tower blocks of offices, condominiums, luxury hotels and tinselled department stores.
Yet this Western-inspired appearance is largely a façade, and Bangkok does preserve a remarkable amount of its cultural heritage. The soaring roofs and gilded spires of the Grand Palace and the city's many historic temples present a picture of almost fairytale medieval Oriental splendour. And contained within Bangkok's monuments and sights are treasures of the nation's art and cultural endeavor that typify the land the people. More than anywhere else in the country, Bangkok expresses that essential paradox of adherence to tradition and vibrant involvement with modern development. The successful balancing of tradition and modernity is itself an indication of a national trait.
There is a cohesiveness through continuity, which indelibly stamps the national and which imparts a quintessential 'Thainess' to its. The word Thai means 'free' and the nation is the 'land of the free'. This sounds suspiciously trite, and yet the freedom which has permitted historical consistency and the retention of underpinning character traits both defines the country and sustains a pleasing individuality.
Thailand's history as a sovereign state goes back 750 years to the founding of the first capital, Sukhothai, in the early 13th century. This initial power base enjoyed total autonomy for little more than 100 years, but in that time national patterns were forged. The roots of today's political, religious, social and cultural systems can all, to a greater or lesser degree, be traced back to this period.
The second capital, Ayutthaya, founded in 1350, rapidly eclipsed Sukhothai and was the heart of the nation until it was sacked and razed by the Burmese in 1767. Defeat was literally catastrophic but, in a remarkable display of resilience, the Thais quickly reorganized themselves under King Taksin and soon expelled the invaders.
Taksin has set up a new capital on the west bank of the Chao Phaya River. It was his successor, King Rama I, founder of the present Chakri dynasty, who established Bangkok as his power base, on the east side of the Chao Phya River about 85 kilometers (53 miles) downstream from Ayutthaya. Bangkok, known to the Thais as Krung Thep (City of Angels), soon rivalled Ayutthaya in beauty.
Aside from the inevitable vagaries of historical fortune, the development of Thailand - or Siam as it was called until 1939 - shows great continuity. The Thai way has evolved through centuries of steadfastness had and independence in body and spirit. This has given rise to an unflagging respect for tradition. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the two most vital cohesive forces that are continuous threads running through the national fabric - Buddhism and monarchy.
Theravada Buddhism was adopted as the national religion during the Sukhothai period and today 94 percent of the population professes and practices the faith. The continuing influence of Buddhism, even in cosmopolitan Bangkok, can bee seen in the early morning when files of saffron-robbed monks go out into the streets to receive food alms from the lay community. This dawn scene has been the same for hundreds of years.
It is still normal practice for young Thai men to enter the monkhood once in their lives, if only for the usual brief spell of three months. Throughout the country there are an estimated 27,000 Buddhist wats (temple-cum-monastery) and at any one time these support roughly 250,000 monks. Far from being a burden to society, this large religious community plays an integral role in the lives of Thais as they engage in the accumulation of merit. The more merit a person gains the closer he or she comes to ultimate release from the cycle of death and rebirth. Giving alms to monks as well as having a son ordained are important ways of gathering merit.
The monarchy also has been a profound influence on the nation since its earliest days. The kings always have directed the country with a firm, but benign, hand. Once known as "lords of Life', the kings formerly held absolute power, assumed a semi-divine aura, and enjoyed the highest esteem of their subjects.
Today, following the bloodless revolution of 1932, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. Curtailment of political power has, however, in no way reduced the king'' role to that of a mere figurehead, nor diminished the people's respect.
The present monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IV, is a man of considerable personal accomplishment as an artist, musician, photographer and yachtsman. He ascended the throne in 1946 at the age of 19 and has subsequently maintained a high and positive profile by taking a hand in initiating and promoting numerous development projects, especially those directed at agricultural improvement. In July 1988 he became the longest reigning monarch in Thai history.
Nearly every home, office, ship and public building throughout the country displays portraits of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, such is the reverence of the Thais for the monarchy and such is its stability and continuity as an institution.
Outside of Bangkok, Thailand still presents a largely rural scene and agriculture, in one form or another, which provides a livelihood for about two-thirds of the population. Although a mainly agrarian society, the country is a dynamic modern economy. In 1985, manufacturing overtook agriculture to account for the largest share of gross national product and today, following an export drive, the world buys not only most of its rice, tapioca and tinned pineapples from Thailand, but also is consuming increasing amounts of the country's shoes, garments, textiles, jewelry, and other manufactured items.
In an economy that has sustained enviable growth over recent years, nothing quite rivals the success of the tourism industry. After a massive promotional campaign in 1987, the country now welcomes 3.5 million visitors a year.
Topographically the country is divided into four distinct areas, each with an individual charm and interest. Stretching north of Bangkok are the Central Plains, a patchwork of emerald green paddies watered by the Chao Phya River, Thailand's Nile. By contrast, the far north is an area of teak forests and jungle-clad mountains, distant and diminutive offshoots of the Himalayas. Here are Doi Inthanon, at 2,565 metres (8,240 feet) the country' s highest peak, also a host of small historic towns, forestry work in which elephants are still employed as skilled labour, and the undisturbed villages of colourful hilltribes, people of separate ethnic origin who maintain independent lifestyle little affected by the 20th century.
Different again is the northeast, or I-san in Thai. This is a semi-arid plateau where traditional agricultural communities follow the unchanging annual cycle of farming seasons, punctuated only by many time-honoured festivals. To the south lies the narrow Kra peninsula where the landscape is typified by hilly rain forest and rubber plantations. The coastline, looking out on to the waters of the Andaman Sea on the west and to the Gulf of Thailand on the east, harbours some of Asia's finest beaches and idyllic offshore islands. Most spectacular among the latter are Phuket on the west coast and Samui Island in the Gulf, both offering the beauty of tropical island scenery.
Within Thailand's different landscapes are varied flora and fauna, and much can be appreciated at the several national parks, such as Khao Vai northeast of Bangkok, and others scattered around the country. The forests are dwindling, though lush vegetation still abounds including many types of trees, shrubs and flowers, of which nearly one thousand varieties of orchids are particularly notable. Elephants, tigers, leopards, snakes, monkeys, deer and hundreds of species of birds and butterflies are indigenous to the country.
Despite the beauty of nature, it is Bangkok with its Buddhist temples, unique in form and magnificent in architecture, that is the starting point for most visits. The fabulously ornate yet strangely serene Wat Phra Keo, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, in the compound of the Grand Palace; the imposing prang (spire) of Wat Arun, Temple of Dawn, on the banks of the Chao Phya; the extensive compound the giant statue of the reclining Buddha at Wat Po, Bangkok's largest and oldest wat - these are just three of the most famous of Bangkok's roughly 400 temples.
Elsewhere in Bangkok cultural achievements also can be seen at the National Museum, one of the best in Asia, and at the private museums of Suan Pakkard Palace and Jim Thompson's house. In both of the latter the hoses are as fascinating as the art objects they contain.
Bangkok's environs also are interesting. Up the Chao Phya River there are the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya. To the west lies the world's tallest Buddhist monument, Phra Pathom Chedi, at Nakhom Pathom, and also the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi, built by Allied prisoners of war during World War ii.
To the south, for those in search of hedonistic delights, are Phuket and Samui islands, representing the most spectacular and most pristine of Thailand's tropical resorts. An alternative which augments the delights of the beach with on-shore recreation and entertainment is Pattaya resort, only a couple of hours' drive from Bangkok.
Pattaya is unique. It is a beach resort with city status; it is brash, bawdy, colourful and alive with activity. It has a beach which provided as full selection of watersports, but it also offers a profusion of open-air bars, discos, restaurants and other entertainment facilities that produce a nightlife rivalling Bangkok. Bangkok's Pattaya is not to everyone's liking, but it needs to be seen to be believed.
This international playground is on the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand. On the west side, about a three-hour drive from Bangkok, are the more sedate beach resorts of Cha-am and Hua Hin.
Throughout its history, the land now defined by the borders of Thailand has witnessed the passage of a number of civilizations which have been adopted and adapted to varying degrees by the Thais as they forged their sovereign state. Evidence of this cultural evolution abounds, from the pre-Thai period and the various epochs of Thai history. Archaeological finds at the northeastern villages of Ban Chiang have yielded evidence of a civilization dating back more than 5,000 years. This pre-dates China and Mesopotamia as the earliest known origins of an agrarian, bronze-making community.
Northeast Thailand also presents some remarkable examples of Khmer architecture, notably at Phimai and Phnom Rung. Dating mostly from the 12th century, these monuments are evidence of the extent of the Khmer empire. Since Angkir the central of that empire, is not readily accessible to the ordinary traveller in present-day Kampuchea, the ruins at Phimai and Phnom Rung are the finest examples of Khmer religious architecture that can be seen easily today.
On the northern edge of the Central Plains there is, in addition to Ayutthaya, the site of the first capital at Sukhothai. The extensive ruins here have been groomed as an attractive historical park. About 70 kilometers (42 miles) north of Sukhothai are the smaller, but equally fascinating, ruins of Si Satchanalai, a sister city to the first Thai capital.
The major cultural centre outside Bangkok is Chiang Mai, Thailand's second largest city and capital of the North. Chiang Mai was founded in the late 13th century as the capital of Lanna, a Thai kingdom contemporary with, but independent of Sukhothai. The whole of the North largely was autonomous until the early 20th century and hence displays considerable variation in its art and architecture. The several temples of Chiang Mai, for example, are not only far older than those of Bangkok, they also are vastly different in style and decorative detail.
Today, Chiang Mai extends well beyond the ancient city gates and moat (both of which still can be seen). Besides the fine art, architecture and sculpture of the temples in town and nearby, there is a thriving cottage industry turning out a wide range of traditional handicrafts. Silverware, woodcarving, lacquerware, celadon pottery, and hand-painted umbrellas are produced according to traditional techniques. From Chiang Mai the historic towns Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen, both of which predate the founding of Chiang Mai, can be explored. There are also sleepy little settlement, such as Mae Hong Son, hilltribe villages and elephant training camps all hidden away in the timeless folds of the hills.
Scenery and culture are no the sum total of Thailand's attractions. Modern developments especially in Bangkok. Have their own allure. Nightlife entertainment, much of it male-oriented, reaches near legendary proportions. There are also displays of classical Thai dance and music, Thai boxing matches, dinner cruises on the Chao Phya River, concerts, plays, ballet and other classical entertainment. Visiting companies and individual artists of international standing perform in Bangkok from time to time, while a local symphony orchestra and a community theater group perform regularly. A careful study of the 'What's on' coloumns in the press shows that Bangkok is not a cultural desert.
There is also food. Thais love food and the national cuisine reflects this passion. Fish and rice are the staples throughout the land, while markets abound in vegetables and fruits, herbs and spices, seafood and farm produce, all of which are imaginatively employed in creative recipes.
Ultimately it is the people who make Thailand what is. Much is made of Thailand's old soubriquet 'Land of Smiles', but while the Thais are a gentle, hospitable people and more likely to look radiant than to scowl, such a title cheapens the truth with its fairy-tale connotations. There are stresses and strains in Thailand just as in every dynamic society, though what marks the Thais as different is their well-development sense of fun.
This endearing trait, known as sanuk, is visible in nearly every daily activity from a simple stroll to eating, drinking or celebrating. Above all it is given full rein in the numerous festivals that dot the calendar.
Such a delight in the pleasures of life is contagious and is further encouraged by the Thai's inherent graciousness and good manners. The well-known sport of Thai kick-boxing-incidentally the most popular from of spectator sanuk - is strangely at odds with this national character in its violent aggression. In daily life the Thais maintain a gentle grace and elegance, which is particularly valuable in a high-powered and fast-paced world.
All this fundamentally derives from the calm and mature desire to integrate traditional modern values. Essentially it is this that makes the people indelibly Thai and it is this that gives meaning to that famous musical refrain: 'We are Siamese if you please, we are Siamese if you don't please.'