Most of Thailand's 66 million people live in the countryside or in rural villages, where they earn a living in agriculture, predominantly by rice farming. However, as in many developing nations, there is a constant drift of people from the country to the city, and Bangkok, the nation's capital, is now home to over 8 million. The city's inhabitants are divided between wealthy Thais, often of Chinese ancestry, who are educated and hold formidable positions, and mostly uneducated workers, who came from the rural hinterland (termed "upcountry" by Thais). Hierarchy, or class, is an important distinction to Thais, who, like many of the region's nations, follow a loose version of India's caste system. When a Thai meets someone, he or she can instantly size that person up and, depending on that individual's social status, will treat the person accordingly. Interestingly, as a foreigner, you are automatically awarded a position of stature, regardless of your social standing back home, just as long you don't flout Thai etiquette.
So, who exactly are the Thai people? It's hard to say. There really are no historically "ethnic" Thais. Today's Thais (about 75% of the population) emerged from waves of various immigrants going back around 10 centuries. "Looking Back at Thailand," below, explains these waves in greater detail, but, by and large, the main bloodline is infused with indigenous people from the Bronze Age, southern Chinese tribes, Mons from Myanmar (Burma), Khmers from Cambodia, Malays, Arabs, and Europeans, plus more recent immigrants from China, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Central Thailand is a true melting pot; however, southern Thais have a closer ancestral affinity with Malays, while Thais in the north are more closely related to the Chinese, Laotians, and Burmese. The north is also home to small groups of Akha, Lisu, Lahu, Hmong, and Yao -- brightly dressed hill-tribes who migrated south from China and Tibet during the past century. In the northeast province of Isan, Laotian influence prevails. The remaining 25% of the population are divided between Chinese (14%) and Indians, Malays, Karens, Khmer, and Mons (11%).
Despite this diversity of ethnic origin, when it comes to religion, over 95% of the country's inhabitants are Buddhist, and there are over 40,000 temples scattered around the country. There are small pockets of Christians, particularly in the north, where missionaries have had limited success in converting hill-tribes. Muslim communities tend to be concentrated in the south, where unpredictable attacks by separatists on schools and government buildings have made the southern provinces off-limits to tourists for some years now.
Unlike its neighbors, Thailand was never colonized, a fact which has helped to keep its rich culture undiluted and has undoubtedly contributed to the country becoming Southeast Asia's most popular tourist destination. The well-developed infrastructure makes it easy to make hotel booking; get around by plane, train, or bus; or get connected by phone or online. The 15 million or so visitors who arrive every year have made tourism the nation's biggest foreign exchange earner, an honor held not so long ago by rice, the staple food of the region. Thailand has a high number of return visitors, though exactly what endears them to the place varies according to individual taste. For some it's the glittering temples, for others it's a laid-back resort overlooking a tranquil beach, while for others it's the chance to go on a shopping spree, or to study meditation or Thai cooking. For many, the most memorable moments are encounters with the Thai people, who are generally warm and welcoming. Locals delight in any foreigner who takes an interest in their heritage, learns a little bit of the language, eats Thai food, and follows Thai customs. Above all, the Thai people have an incredible sense of humor -- a light-hearted spirit and a hearty chuckle go a long way toward making friends.
After the economic crash of 1997, which started in Thailand but affected all Southeast Asian countries, the economy made an impressive recovery, but 12 years on, there are strong warning signs that it is in for a rough ride. Two significant events in late 2008 severely affected investor confidence: first the global financial crisis of September, then the occupation of Suvarnabhumi Airport in November by members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Exchange rates have become less favorable for visitors, inflation is moving into double figures, and the cost of living is rising noticeably (so gone are the days of the 165B bungalow on the beach!).
Adding to the country's economic woes, the political climate has been unstable since the coup of 2006 that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Fragile alliances have come and gone and the country is currently led by Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democratic Party. The Democrats form part of the People's Alliance for Democracy, better known as the "yellow shirts," whose archenemy is the similar-sounding United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), better known as the "red shirts" -- supporters of Thaksin. Both groups hold frequent rallies, at which scuffles often break out and occasionally boil over, as in Bangkok during the Songkran Festival in April 2009, when the red shirts eschewed the traditional water-splashing festivities in favor of hurling rocks and petrol bombs at the military. Tourists are never targeted in these conflicts, but it's best to steer clear of rallies where red and yellow shirts are in evidence.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.