Exodus to Thailand
The travels of
David Nicolson Freidberg, SMA '68

Encarta Encyclopaedic Resources
The narrative which appears on this page is reprinted from Microsoft's Encarta CD-ROM Encyclopedia, and will acquaint the reader with an overview of the factual data on the various aspects of Thailand's culture, government, economy and history.

Thailand, formerly SIAM, officially Kingdom of Thailand, kingdom of Southeast Asia, bounded by Burma (Myanmar) on the north and west, by Laos on the northeast, by Cambodia and the Gulf of Thailand (Siam) on the southeast, by Malaysia on the south, and by the Andaman Sea and Burma on the southwest. The total area of Thailand is 514,000 sq km (198,456 sq mi).

Maps courtesy Broderbund Atlas Maps 'N Facts and provided by John Deal, SMA '49

Land and Resources

Thailand lies within the Indochinese Peninsula, except for the southern extremity, which occupies a portion of the Malay Peninsula. The country's extreme dimensions are about 1770 km (about 1100 mi) from north to south and about 805 km (about 500 mi) from east to west. The physiography is highly diversified, but the mountain systems are the predominant feature of the terrain. A series of parallel ranges, with a north-south trend, occupy the northern and western portions of the country. Extreme elevations occur in the westernmost ranges, which extend along the Burmese frontier and rise to 2595 m (8514 ft) atop Doi (mount) Inthanon, the highest point in Thailand. The peninsular area, which is bordered by narrow coastal plains, reaches a high point of 1786 m (5860) atop Khao Luang. Another mountain system projects, in a northern and southern direction, through central Thailand. At its southern extremity, the system assumes an east-west trend and extends to the eastern frontier. Doi Pia Fai (1270 m/4167 ft) is its highest peak. The region to the north and east of this system consists largely of a low, barren plateau, called the Khorat Plateau. Making up about one-third of the country, the plateau is bordered by the Mekong River valley. Between the central and western mountains is a vast alluvial plain traversed by the Chao Phraya, the chief river of Thailand. This central plain, together with the fertile delta formed by the Chao Phraya near Bangkok, is the richest agricultural and most densely populated section of the kingdom.

Principal Cities
Bangkok is the capital, chief seaport, and largest city (population, 1986 estimate, greater city, 5,446,700). Other important towns include Chiang Mai, the largest in northern Thailand; Ban Hat Yai, on the Malay Peninsula; and Udon Thani, in the northeast.

Thailand has a moist, tropical climate, influenced chiefly by monsoon winds that vary in direction according to the season. From April to October the winds are mainly from the southwest and are moisture laden; during the rest of the year they blow from the northeast. Temperatures are higher, ranging from 25.6< to 36.7< C (78< to 98< F), while the country is under the influence of the southwestern winds. During the remainder of the year the range is from 13.3< to 33.3< C (56< to 92< F). Temperatures are somewhat higher inland than they are along the coast, except at points of great elevation.

Annual rainfall is about 1525 mm (about 60 in) in the northern, western, and central regions, 2540 mm (100 in) or more on the Thai portion of the Malay Peninsula, and 1270 mm (50 in) or less on the Khorat Plateau. Most rain falls in summer (June through October).

Natural Resources
Thailand is rich in natural resources. Among the known mineral deposits are coal, gold, lead, tin, tungsten, manganese, zinc, and precious stones. In addition, the country has many large forests that produce teak for export. The rich alluvial soil along the Chao Phraya and other rivers constitutes another important resource.

Plants and Animals
Jungles and swamps, scattered through the coastal areas of Thailand, have extensive stands of tropical trees, including mangrove, rattan, ironwood, sappanwood, ebony, and rosewood. The upland areas are also heavily wooded, the most valuable species being teak, agalloch, and oak. In addition, a wide variety of tropical plants and fruit trees, including orchid, gardenia, hibiscus, banana, mango, and coconut, occur in Thailand. Many species of animal inhabit the jungles and forests. Elephants, widely used as beasts of burden, are abundant. Other large quadrupeds include the rhinoceros, tiger, leopard, gaur, water buffalo, and gibbon. The Siamese cat is, as its name implies, indigenous to Thailand. Thailand has more than 50 species of snakes, including several poisonous varieties. Crocodiles are numerous, as are various species of fishes and birds.


The inhabitants of Thailand are primarily Thai, a people of the Indochinese linguistic family who are thought to have originated in southwestern China and migrated to Southeast Asia at the beginning of the 1st millennium ad. An ethnic distinction often is made, however, between the Thai proper, who occupy the central regions, and the Lao people of the northwestern and eastern regions, who are related more closely to the people of neighboring Laos. The Thai constitute about 80% of the population. The largest minority group consists of the Chinese, who make up about 12% of the total population and many of whom are Thai nationals. Other minority groups include the Malay-speaking Muslims in the south, the hill tribes in the north, and Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees in the east. The population of Thailand is about 80% rural.

Population Characteristics
The population of Thailand was 55,258,000 (1989 estimate), yielding an overall population density of about 108 persons per sq km (about 278 per sq mi). The population is unevenly distributed, however, with the greatest concentration of people in the central region.


Buddhism is the prevailing religion of Thailand. The head of the Buddhist hierarchy, called the supreme patriarch, is generally a member of the royal family. About 95% of all Thais are Buddhists, and the country has approximately 18,000 Buddhist temples and 140,000 Buddhist priests. Nearly all Buddhist men in Thailand enter a wat (monastery) for at least a few days or months. Muslims, the majority of whom live in the area just north of Malaysia, constitute approximately 4% of the population, and the country also has some small Christian and Hindu communities.


Thai, a member of the Indochinese language family, is the chief language. Four regional dialects are in use. English is taught in some secondary schools and colleges and is also used in the commercial and government worlds. See Sino-Tibetan Languages.


Education in Thailand is free and compulsory for all children between the ages of 7 and 14, but the available school facilities, both public and in Buddhist monasteries, are insufficient to provide a primary education for all children. The literacy rate is nearly 90%, higher than that of most other countries of Southeast Asia.

Elementary and Secondary Schools
In the mid-1980s primary schools numbered about 32,700, with 356,800 teachers and nearly 7.2 million pupils. More than 1400 secondary schools with 107,500 teachers had about 1.8 million pupils, and at least 1500 vocational and teacher-training schools were attended by more than 390,000 students. An additional 1 million students were enrolled in higher educational institutions.

Universities and Colleges
Thailand has several universities, the largest of which are Sri Nakharinwirot (1954) and Chulalongkorn (1917) universities in Bangkok and Chiang Mai University (1964) in the north. In addition, the Asian Institute of Technology (1959), in Bangkok, enrolled about 650 graduate students in the late 1980s.


Thailand is unique in Southeast Asia in that the country never has been a dependency of another nation. Another notable difference is that Thai women, unlike women of some other East Asian countries, are active in business affairs, the professions, and the arts. Buddhism, which permeates the day-to-day life of the Thai, tends to infuse a serenity and a flexibility that make the Thai a friendly and easygoing people. No single culture has ever dominated the entire area. The period of greatest cultural development was the Sukhotai period (1238- 1378), when the Thai absorbed elements of various civilizations with which they came in contact, including the Indian and the Chinese.

Libraries and Museums
The largest library in Thailand is the National Library, in Bangkok. In addition, important technical collections are maintained in Bangkok at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the Asian Institute of Technology Library, and the Thai National Documentation Center. Thailand has a National Museum in Bangkok, which houses a large collection of ancient artifacts illustrating the development of Thai culture. Another important collection of Thai art was assembled by Jim Thompson (died 1969?), an American businessman who lived in Bangkok. His reconstructed Thai house filled with art, furniture, and ceramics is now a museum.

Classic Thai literature is based on tradition and history. The Ramakien, the Thai version of the Hindu epic Ramayana, is the leading classic on which Thai art and music are also based. Modern writing is more Western in style, and Thailand has many women among its authors of popular writing.

Among the most celebrated works of architecture in Thailand are the wats in Bangkok. Thai sculpture, dating from the 14th century, is a mixture of Chinese, Burmese, Hindu, and Khmer influences and is best seen in the temples and representations of Buddha. Thai religious paintings have been less well preserved; paintings are rarely older than 50 or 100 years. Thailand is known for producing beautiful silk textiles.

Music and Dance
Thai music is very intricate and is a usual accompaniment of Thai drama. The instruments, primarily woodwind and percussion, are usually grouped in five- or ten-piece ensembles. Musicians sit on the floor to play, and generally play by ear. The dance in Thailand is equally intricate, following or deriving from Indian dancing and involving a series of gestures and swaying that interpret a story. Even the smallest movements reflect important story threads, carefully woven by performers dressed in elaborate costumes and headgear.


The cultivation, processing, and export of agricultural products, especially rice, has traditionally been the mainstay of the Thai economy. Although Thailand has long been among the most prosperous of the Asian nations, its dependence on a single crop rendered it exceedingly vulnerable to fluctuations in the world price of rice and to variations in the harvest. The government has attempted to diminish this vulnerability by instituting a number of development programs aimed at diversifying the economy and by promoting scientific methods of farming, particularly controlled flooding of the rice fields, so that the rice harvest might remain stable even in years of scanty rainfall. Spurred largely by Japanese investment, Thailand industrialized rapidly during the 1980s and early '90s. The estimated annual national budget in the late 1980s included revenue of about $10.4 billion and expenditure of about $11.3 billion.

Thailand is one of the world's leading producers of rice, despite the fact that the yield per hectare is low. In the late 1980s Thailand annually produced approximately 20.8 million metric tons of rice, up from about 11.3 million metric tons per year in the 1960s. The second most important crop in value is rubber, which is raised mainly on plantations on the Malay Peninsula. In the late 1980s approximately 860,000 metric tons of rubber were produced each year. Other important crops included corn (5.2 million metric tons), sorghum (215,000), cassava (22.3 million), sugarcane (27.2 million), cotton lint (35,000), tobacco (54,000), coffee (31,000), coconuts (1.4 million), and kenaf (201,000), a fiber used in making canvas. Livestock totaled about 6 million buffalo, 5 million cattle, 4.3 million pigs, and 85 million chickens.

Forestry and Fishing
About 28% of the total land area of Thailand is forested. The most valuable forest product is hardwood (especially teak). The annual timber harvest in the late 1980s totaled about 37.6 million cu m (about 1.3 billion cu ft). Fishing is also an important industry, and in the late 1980s the annual catch included 2.2 million metric tons of fish, of which about 7% came from inland waters.

Tin, of which Thailand is one of the world's largest producers, is the leading mineral; it is found chiefly on the Malay Peninsula. The country's chief mineral products include (with annual output in the late 1980s) tin concentrate (20,500 metric tons), lead concentrate (55,300), iron ore (97,000), tungsten concentrate (1270), lignite (6.9 million), and manganese ore (9100).

Manufacturing employs about 10% of the labor force. Food-processing industries, especially rice-milling and sugar-refining, predominate. Most of the industrial production is for domestic consumption. In the late 1980s important manufactured goods included cement (9.9 million metric tons), raw sugar (1.6 million), and various chemicals and petroleum products.

In the late 1980s Thailand annually produced about 30 billion kwh of electricity, up from about 3 billion kwh in 1968. More than 85% was produced in thermal installations, largely burning locally produced coal or imported petroleum; the remainder was generated in hydroelectric facilities.

The basic unit of currency of Thailand is the baht, which is divided into 100 satang (25.75 baht equal U.S.$1; 1990). The Bank of Thailand, established in 1942, issues all currency. Thailand also has many commercial bank branches, as well as several foreign banks.

Foreign Trade
In the late 1980s Thai exports were valued at about $15.8 billion annually, and imports were valued at about $17.9 billion. Principal exports were textiles, fishery products, electronic components, rice, rubber, tin, tapioca products, and corn. Imports included petroleum products, motor vehicles, iron and steel, industrial machinery, and electrical machinery. Primary trading partners were Japan, the United States, Germany, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Netherlands.

The Thai railroad system, which totals about 3735 km (about 2320 mi) of track, is owned and operated by the state. Consisting of a network of lines radiating from Bangkok, the system extends as far north as Chiang Mai, southward to the frontier of Malaysia, eastward to Ubon, and northeastward through Udon Thani to Vientiane, Laos. Another line extends northwestward to the Burmese frontier. The Chao Phraya, navigable for about 80 km (about 50 mi) from its mouth, is an important inland waterway. The highway system was improved in the 1970s and now includes about 84,760 km (about 52,670 mi) of roads, of which 40% are paved. Thai Airways operates both domestic and international services. The port of Bangkok, one of the most modern in Southeast Asia, also serves neighboring landlocked Laos.

More than 4.8 million television sets and 9.5 million radios were in use in the late 1980s in Thailand. Bangkok has more than 20 daily newspapers, including 2 in English and 6 in Chinese, which have a combined circulation of more than 2.3 million. Periodicals are published in Thai, English, and Chinese, and several weekly papers serve the provinces.

In the late 1980s the labor force totaled 27.7 million, of which about 54% was engaged in agriculture. Organized labor is represented by more than 530 unions with a combined total of nearly 300,000 members.


A revolution in 1932 transformed Thailand into a constitutional monarchy after centuries of rule by absolute monarchs, but since then the country has been largely controlled by the military. The current constitution was promulgated in 1978.

Political Divisions
Thailand is divided into 73 provinces, called changwads. The provinces are further subdivided into 655 districts, called amphurs, more than 6600 communes, called tambons, and more than 58,600 villages, known as moobans.

Under the 1978 constitution the king is Thailand's head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. He appoints a cabinet, headed by a prime minister, who in theory is the country's chief executive official. The prime minister may take any steps necessary to preserve the stability of the throne, to maintain public order, or to ensure that the economy functions smoothly. In practice, however, high-level military officers play a major role in government.

Legislative power in Thailand is vested in the bicameral National Assembly, which is made up of a house of representatives, with 360 members elected to 4-year terms, and a senate, with 270 members (mostly from the military) appointed by the king for 6-year terms.

The highest court is the supreme court (Sarn Dika) sitting in Bangkok, which is the court of final appeal in all civil, criminal, and bankruptcy cases. A single court of appeals (Sarn Uthorn) has appellate jurisdiction in all cases. Courts of first instance include magistrates courts with limited civil and criminal jurisdiction, provincial courts with unlimited jurisdiction, and civil and criminal courts with exclusive jurisdiction in Bangkok and Thon Buri. Under the 1978 constitution the independence of the judiciary is recognized.

Local Government
Each of Thailand's 73 provinces, called changwads, are under the control of a governor appointed by the national government. District (amphur) officials are also appointed. Larger towns are governed by elected and appointed officials, and elected headmen hold power at local levels.

Health and Welfare
The Department of Public Welfare is charged with disaster relief, child welfare, and protection of the disabled and destitute. Special programs were initiated in the 1980s to assist the hill tribes of the north and the refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia in the east. Thailand has some 9500 physicians and 84,400 hospital beds.

Military service is compulsory for two years for all able-bodied men between the ages of 21 and 30. In the late 1980s the armed forces included an army of 190,000 members, an air force of 43,000, and a navy of 50,000.


Tai-speaking peoples, originating in western China, moved into Yunnan in the 2d or 1st century bc. In the confusion following the collapse of the Han dynasty in ad 220, Tai leaders founded the kingdom of Nan Chao, which endured until the Mongol conquest in the mid-13th century (see Nan Chao, Kingdom of). Long before that time, however, the Tai had begun a southward migration that in the course of the following centuries led them far down the Malay peninsula and as far east as Cambodia. Here they were subject to Indian influences and adopted the Buddhist religion. By the end of the 13th century the Tai had formed a political entity and emerged as a nation afterward known as the Thai. In 1350 a unified Thai kingdom was established by a ruler known posthumously as Rama Tibodi (reigned 1350-69). He founded the kingdom of Ayutthaya and made it his capital. Despite intermittent warfare with the Cambodians and Burmese, the Ayutthaya kingdom flourished during the next four centuries, conquering Cambodia and the surviving states in the north (see Ayutthaya, Kingdom of). Meanwhile, the Thai had come into contact that was not always friendly with various European and Asian nations, including Portugal, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and China.

Sovereignty Embattled
The Burmese launched a full-scale attack on Thailand, and in 1767, following a 4-year siege, Ayutthaya was captured and destroyed. Burmese overlordship in Thailand was shortly terminated in an uprising led by General Pya Taksin (reigned 1767-82), who proclaimed himself king. On his death the crown passed to General Pya Chakri, founder of the present dynasty of Thai kings, who ruled (1782-1809) as Rama I. The British and Thai governments concluded a commercial treaty in 1826. Because of the rights and privileges obtained by this agreement, British influence increased in Thailand throughout the remainder of the 19th century.

Owing to the statesmanship of two rulers, however, Thailand was spared the fate of colonization that befell its neighbors. Interested in Western science and civilization, King Mongkut (reigned 1851-68) invited many European advisers to assist him in modernizing the country. His son, King Chulalongkorn, who reigned during the height of the onslaught of European colonization, continued the vigorous modernization efforts of his father and managed to maintain the country's independence, albeit at considerable cost in territorial concessions. Thus, in 1893 Thailand became embroiled in a boundary dispute with France, then the dominant power in Cochin China, Annam, Tonkin, and Cambodia. The French dispatched warships to Bangkok and forced the Thais to yield Cambodia and all of Laos east of the Mekong River. Additional Thai territory, situated west of the Mekong, was acquired by France in 1904 and 1907. Thailand gave up suzerainty over four states in the Malay Peninsula to Great Britain in 1909. In exchange, the British relinquished most of their extraterritorial rights in the rest of the kingdom. The Thai government entered World War I on the side of the Allies in July 1917. Thailand subsequently became a founding member of the League of Nations.

In June 1932, during the reign of King Prajadhipok (1893-1941), a small group of Thai military and political leaders organized a successful revolt against the government, until then an absolute monarchy. The insurgents, led by Pridi Phanomyong and Colonel Phibun Songgram (1897-1964), proclaimed a constitutional monarchy on June 27. Royalist opposition was finally overcome in October 1933. In March 1935 King Prajadhipok abdicated in favor of his nephew, Prince Ananda Mahidol (1924-46). Thailand invalidated all of its treaties with foreign nations in November 1936. Under the provisions of new treaties negotiated in the following year, the government obtained complete autonomy.

World War II
With Japanese encouragement and support, Phibun's government made demands on France, beginning in 1940, for the return of the territory ceded in and after 1893. The dispute was settled, with Japanese mediation, in May 1941. By the terms of the settlement, Thailand received about 54,000 sq km (about 21,000 sq mi) of territory, including part of western Cambodia and all of Laos west of the Mekong River. The relations between Japan and Thailand became increasingly friendly thereafter. On December 8, 1941, a few hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Thai government granted Japan the right to move troops across the country to the Malayan frontier. Thailand declared war on the United States and Great Britain on January 25, 1942. Phibun's pro-Japanese government, however, was overthrown in July 1944, and considerable sympathy for the Allied cause thereafter developed among the Thai people under Pridi's leadership.

Thailand concluded a treaty with Great Britain and India in January 1946, renouncing, among other things, its claims to Malayan territory obtained during the war. Diplomatic relations with the United States were resumed in the same month. In November 1946 Thailand reached an agreement with France providing for the return to France of the territory obtained in 1941. Thailand was admitted to the United Nations on December 15, 1946, becoming the 55th member. Meanwhile, on June 9, 1946, King Ananda Mahidol had died under mysterious circumstances. A regency was appointed to rule during the minority of his brother and successor, King Rama IX.

Domestic Instability
On November 9, 1947, a military junta led by Phibun seized control of the government. A provisional constitution, largely based on the constitution of 1946, was immediately proclaimed by the junta. Except for a brief interlude early in 1948, Phibun thereafter retained control of the government until 1957. His regime, essentially a dictatorship, based its foreign policy on maintaining close relations with the U.S. and Great Britain. King Rama IX assumed the throne on May 5, 1950. After the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, Thailand assigned approximately 4000 men to the UN forces. On November 29, 1951, a group of army officers seized control of the government in a bloodless coup d'état and reestablished the authoritarian constitution of 1932, with some changes. Phibun was retained as premier. Meanwhile, a Free Thai movement, supported by the Chinese Communists and nominally headed by Pridi, had been formed in China.

Thai representatives took part in the Geneva Conference of April 1954, which temporarily ended the war in Indochina. In September 1954, Thailand was a founding member and Bangkok became the headquarters of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).

In September 1957, Phibun's government was overthrown by a military coup d'état led by Marshall Sarit Thanarat, commander in chief of the Thai armed forces.

A coalition government was formed in January 1958 under the premiership of Lieutenant General Thanom Kittikachorn. Another coup in October 1958, again headed by Sarit, overthrew the Thanom government. The constitution was suspended, a state of martial law was proclaimed, and all political parties were banned. In the early 1960s the government showed increasing concern over a rapidly growing Communist guerrilla movement in the north. The increase in terrorist attacks was one of the major problems faced by Thanom, who became prime minister again on Sarit's death in December 1963. The new government was also concerned about the deteriorating position of the pro-Western government in neighboring Laos and about the Vietnam War.

Struggle for Democracy
On the political front, the government took gradual steps toward the restoration of political rights suspended in 1958. Elections to municipal councils were held for the first time in a decade in December 1967. A permanent constitution was promulgated in June 1968. Parliamentary elections were held in February 1969, in which the United Thai People's party won a plurality of 75 seats in the house of representatives. The largest opposition group, the Democratic party, won 56 seats.

Beginning about 1969, the United States changed its role in Southeast Asia by gradually withdrawing its forces from Vietnam and by seeking friendly relations with China. These developments caused Thailand to establish a more flexible foreign policy, especially toward China and North Vietnam. At the same time, Thailand continued to face guerrilla activities in the north and along the border with Malaysia. The U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia had an adverse effect on the Thai economy. The declining economy and guerrilla activities were given as reasons for the establishment of a military government in November 1971. The military, led by General Thanom, abolished the constitution and dissolved Parliament. In December 1972 a new constitution was proclaimed.

In 1973 a series of student-led demonstrations against the military government resulted in Thanom's resignation in October and the appointment of a civilian cabinet. In late 1974 a new constitution was approved, and a freely elected government was formed in early 1975. Stability, however, remained elusive, and new elections in April 1976 made little difference. In September of that year the return of former Prime Minister Thanom from exile in Singapore led to bloody battles in Bangkok between leftist students and his right-wing supporters. In early October, as disorder was spreading, a military group led by Admiral Sa-ngad Chaloryu (1915- ) seized control of the country and installed a conservative government. A year later, however, that government also was brought down by Sa-ngad and his group, who charged a new cabinet with trying to bridge the divisions of Thai society and improve relations with the neighboring Communist regimes. Yet another constitution was promulgated in December 1978, and in April 1979 elections were held for a new house of representatives. The military-installed government, however, remained in power for another year, when it was faced with a vote of no confidence and resigned. A new cabinet, headed by General Prem Tinsulanonda (1920- ), took power in March 1980. Elections in 1983 left General Prem as head of a new coalition government. He dissolved the National Assembly in May 1986 and called for new elections in July. His party won, without a majority, and he again formed a coalition government. After elections in July 1988, Chatichai Choonhavan (1919- ) became prime minister. A military junta ousted him in February 1991 and installed an interim civilian government. After pro-military parties won the elections of March 1992, demonstrations in Bangkok calling for democratic reforms were violently suppressed.

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