Thailand is home to almost 70 million people. And every year (pre-COVID), almost 40 million tourists, travellers and backpackers make their way to the Land of Smiles.
Many are returning visitors, having fallen in love with the vibrant nation. But even if you haven’t visited Thailand yet, you’ve probably heard that Bangkok is a crazy city, Full Moon parties are ‘unmissable’ and you might spot the odd monkey or two. But how much do you really know about the place?
Those who delve a little deeper into Thai culture will find a fascinating tapestry of weird laws, astounding history, strange animals and a highly confusing alphabet!
So if you’re visiting Thailand for the first time, or heading back again, check out these amazing facts about Thailand. How many do you already know?
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24 Fascinating Facts About Thailand
1. Thailand used to be known as Siam by the western world
You may have heard older friends and relatives refer to Thailand as Siam. Or you may have heard it in old films, plays, books and poems. But what’s the history of the name, and why did it change?
Since the 11th century, Tai people (a group originating in Southern China and speaking the Tai language) have lived in the area we now call Thailand. It’s generally accepted that they migrated south from their homeland around the year 1000CE. Throughout much of history, Thailand was not a unified nation and was instead ruled by competing city states and micro empires.
During the 15th century, Portuguese diplomats and ambassadors arrived in Asia en masse. When visiting China, they were told of the Xian area to the south. Xian is the name the Chinese gave to modern-day Thailand. Xian was quickly translated to Siam and the name spread fast across the western world. At the time though, Tai people referred to the area as Meuang Thai (meuang means land in English).
It remained as Siam, even becoming officially recognised by the Tai people during the 19th century. However, in 1939, less than a year after appointing a new leader, the name was officially changed to Thailand to honour how the Tai people referred to their homeland.
In 1946, following another regime change, the country became known as Siam once more. This time though, it only lasted a few years. By the turn of the decade, Thailand was once again the officially recognised name for the country.
2. Muay Thai is Thailand’s national sport
Muay Thai, also known as Thai boxing, has an incredible history in Thailand. It was initially developed for intense hand to hand combat by the Siamese military. The earliest records discovered date Muay Thai to the 14th century. It’s believed to be much older than this though, with many previous teachings being lost during the sacking of the ancient Siam capital of Ayutthaya.
Muay Thai employs more body parts than other martial arts. The elbows, knees, shins and fists are all used. This is how it got the nickname ‘the art of eight limbs’.
Although not as life and death as it once was, Muay Thai is still serious business today. People travel to Thailand from all corners of the world to train at the most prestigious Muay Thai training camps. And it’s not just the fighters who flock to Thailand. Tens of thousands of travellers become Muay Thai spectators each year.
Every major town and city in the country has an arena — with fight nights taking place regularly. Even if you’re not interested in combat sports, we highly recommend going to check out a Muay Thai fight in Bangkok or Chiang Mai. It’s a night to remember!
3. It’s illegal to go commando in Thailand
Yep, you read that right. It’s illegal to go without underwear in Thailand… even if you’ve got trousers or shorts on.
As someone who already finds rules about nakedness weird, this quirky law caught my attention — especially considering how many days I ended up going commando in Thailand after losing all my laundry…
So how is this law enforced? Honestly, no one knows. While the law certainly exists, it appears no one has ever been punished for breaking it. But it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you can cope with the heat, keep those pants on. And if not, be subtle about your lack of undergarments.
4. It’s also illegal to drive without a shirt on in Thailand
As if having to wear pants all the time isn’t hard enough… Turns out it’s against Thai law to drive without a top on too!
Thai culture is much more conservative than backpackers are led to believe. Skin should almost always be covered and Thai people will commonly wear long layers — even on the hottest days or while swimming!
Backpackers in the 70’s could be forgiven for not understanding local customs until they got to their destination but that’s not the case today. It only takes a few minutes of googling to find tips on becoming a respectful traveller.
Punishment for driving topless will usually be a ‘fine’ at the side of the road. However, failure to pay could result in jail time. And of course, don’t risk getting caught topless if you’re already commando – that’d just be asking for trouble!
5. Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of orchids
More than 50% of the world’s orchids are grown and exported from Thailand. The industry is worth billions of Baht each year and employs more than 50,000 people.
However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, exports dropped dramatically due to lockdowns and travel restrictions. Even domestic sales which account for 20% of the overall volume, plummeted to almost nothing.
6. Siamese cats are native to Thailand… sort of…
For many kids growing up in the western world, our first glimpse of Siamese cats is in the 1955 Disney classic, Lady And The Tramp. As with many Disney films, the Siamese cats have not aged well and the whole thing now feels a little problematic, to say the least… But it does effectively show one thing: cats are dicks.
In real life, Siamese cats are vocal, sociable and affectionate. And probably not mildly racist, although who really knows. They’re cats after all.
Physically, Siamese cats are tall, slender and well-muscled. They have light coloured fur over most of their bodies but their feet and faces are much darker. Their eyes are bright blue. They have a small tapered head with long pointed ears. Their heads and ears form a triangle shape that is very attractive to cat breeders.
However, these Siamese cats we know in the Western world differ from their ancestors in Thailand. The shape and behaviour of Siamese cats have been changed and moulded over the last 150 years of selective breeding.
In Thailand, the precursor to the Siamese cat, Wichien Maat still exists today. They have a very similar colour pattern and an affectionate nature. However, they’re not as slender or as vocal. Nor do they have such a triangular face.
The first record of Wichien Maat dates back to the Ayutthaya Kingdom. They are mentioned in a series of ancient documents called Tamra Maew, “The Book of Cat Poems”.
In recent years, some breeders in the USA and Europe have started importing and breeding Wichien Maat cats under the names ‘Classic Siamese’ or “Thai” cat.
7. Thailand was never a European colony
Unlike every other nation in Southeast Asia, Thailand was never colonised by a European power. Both Britain and France attempted to take control of the country, each having colonies in the region. Britain controlled Burma (Myanmar) and much of the Malay Peninsula, including Singapore. France had colonies in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (which became known as French Indochina).
These two European nations were successful in wrestling control of small chunks of Thailand. However, neither succeeded in gaining more than the border areas. Eventually, Britain and France agreed to leave Thailand alone, allowing it to become a buffer zone between ‘their’ lands.
8. Bangkok’s full ceremonial name is a bit of a mouthful
Be thankful you don’t have to learn the full title for Thailand’s capital city:
“Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit”
Which translates to:
“City of Angels, Great City of Immortals, Magnificent City of the Nine Gems, Seat of the King, City of Royal Palaces, Home of Gods Incarnate, Erected by Visvakarman at Indra’s Behest”
9. The Thai national anthem is played before every film in the cinema
Don’t get too comfy during the trailers as you’ll be expected to stand when the national anthem (Phleng Chat Thai) starts! But cinemas aren’t the only place. Every day at 8 am and 6 pm, the national anthem is played on radios, TV stations, speaker systems and even on the monorail. No matter what you are doing when you hear it, you’re supposed to stop moving and stand up to show respect.
It’s actually against the law to continue on your way during the national anthem. Although the law is no longer enforced, it would be disrespectful and a huge cultural faux pas not to wait (you’d literally be the only person still moving). It’s only a minute-long.
10. The first known Siamese twins originated from, you guessed it, Thailand
Thai brothers, Eng and Chang Bunker, were born conjoined at the chest. They inspired the term “Siamese twins”. They were born on the 11th of May 1811 and travelled to the USA in 1829. They were displayed in freak shows and studied by countless physicians.
The brothers soon realised they were being scammed by their manager and began touring by themselves. Only a decade after arriving in America they’d made enough money to retire. They settled down, became American citizens, married local sisters and fathered a whopping 21 children between them. This makes them the only conjoined men known to have had kids.
At age 62, the Thai brothers died, just hours apart. During an autopsy, it was revealed that their livers had been connected and that it would’ve been impossible to separate them while still alive.
For those of you with an interest in Dark Tourism and the macabre, you may like to visit the gruesome Siriraj Forensic Museum in Bangkok where you can see real Siamese twins in glass jars! (Not for the squeamish.)
11. The national animal of Thailand is the elephant
From beasts of burden to weapons of war, elephants have played an important role in the history of Thailand. They’re sacred animals within Buddhism and are recognised in iconography and artwork throughout Thailand’s history.
Today, an estimated 7000 Asian elephants call Thailand home. More than 50% of this number are domesticated. Some are used for agricultural purposes, others for tourism.
Elephant tourism came about when logging was made illegal in Thailand. On the 17th of January 1989, the Thai government banned logging. With this one piece of legislation, thousands of elephants were out of work. Previously, they had been used by their mahouts to help remove trees.
These elephants were then taken to Bangkok where, in exchange for food purchased from the mahout, they performed tricks for excited tourists. Elephant riding also became a must-do activity for those visiting Thailand.
However, in recent years, there’s been backlash around elephant tourism and exploitation. In 2010, laws were passed to stop elephant performances. It’s still possible to ride an elephant in Thailand today but the practice has fallen out of favour with tourists and backpackers.
Ethical elephant sanctuaries across Thailand give people a chance to get close to elephants without riding or exploiting them. There’s no riding, and many won’t let you bathe the elephants anymore either. But you’ll see elephants in a much more natural environment than an empty parking lot in Bangkok.
12. Thailand is home to an amazing array of animals
Elephants aren’t the only astounding animal in Thailand. The country is also home to the world’s largest snake — the reticulated python, the world’s largest venomous snake — the king cobra, and the world’s smallest mammal — the Kittis Hog Nosed Bat (bumblebee bat).
That’s not the end of the list either, Thailand’s waters are home to the world’s largest fish — the whale shark. Monitor lizards, rhinos, tapirs and more bird species than Europe and America combined also roam the nation.
It’s not uncommon for travellers to swim with whale sharks in Southeast Asia. If you want to experience these majestic creatures for yourself, make sure you understand the ethics of swimming with whale sharks.
13. All Thai males will do national service… as a monk
Okay, so it isn’t national service. There’s no legal requirement for young men to spend time as a monk. However, with up to 95% of the population being Buddhist, it is expected that most young men will spend some time as a monk before they reach their twentieth birthday.
This expectation applies to all male Buddhists, no matter their class or stature in society. Even royalty will rub elbows with farmers and city workers in the monastery. As a general rule, men are expected to spend three months as a monk in their local temple.
14. Commercial logging is illegal in Thailand
In the last century, industrial logging destroyed three-quarters of Thailand’s hardwood forests. Laws were put in place to reduce the damage but due to political instability in the mid 20th century, the rules were rarely enforced.
In 1989, a full logging ban came into play. Since then, deforestation has decreased and over the last few years, Thailand’s forests have expanded.
15. Thai cuisine is most often eaten with a spoon, fork and knife
Not good with chopsticks? No problem! Thai food is often consumed with ‘normal’ cutlery. Only noodle dishes originating from China are eaten with chopsticks in Thailand. Even then, forks and spoons are usually provided.
When travelling in Thailand, I was told by a restaurant owner that Thai people eat in the most efficient manner. He explained that rice is a chore to pick up, so it’s best to use a spoon. Noodles are messy with a spoon (or even a fork), so it’s best to use chopsticks. Likewise, why use a fork for that sloppy curry? A spoon is much better.
I have taken this advice to heart, much to my girlfriend’s chagrin. She looks embarrassed every time I ask for a spoon to eat rice in a restaurant — “like a small child,” she’ll often say…
Also read: Northern Thailand Food Guide.
16. Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain is 2565.M.A.S.L.
Found in Doi Inthanon National Park, not too far from Chiang Mai, Doi Inthanon the highest point of Thailand. Sitting at 2565 metres above sea level, the peak of Doi Inthanon is almost eight times the elevation of Chiang Mai.
In the grand scheme of things, 2565 metres isn’t too impressive. There’s plenty of cities across South America and Asia that are at much higher elevations. However, what’s great about Doi Inthanon is the ease of access. You can almost drive to the summit! From the car park, you only need to walk a few hundred metres along a nice smooth path to reach the official peak.
Sure, you won’t be standing atop the “roof of Thailand” alone, (it’s estimated over 12,000 people visit the summit each day) but you do get great vistas for very little effort. We suggest exploring the rest of the park too! It’s full of animal and birdlife as well as fascinating plants and even some of Thailand’s Northern Hill Tribes call the area home.
17. Lopburi’s monkey banquet is one of Thailand’s largest festivals
Around two hours north of Bangkok is the city of Lopburi. Best known for its furry residents, the city draws in hordes of travellers each year. They come to see the thousands of macaques that rule the streets, the main bulk of which are centred around Phra Prang Sam Yot, or as it’s otherwise known; Monkey Temple.
Residents have profited from the influx of tourist dollars to such an extent that they throw a yearly banquet to thank and pay their respects to the monkeys. Tons of meat, fish, fruit rice and even ice cream is placed on huge tables outside the temple in one of Thailand’s best festivals. Close to a thousand monkeys leave the temple to have their fill!
18. The Thai alphabet contains 44 consonants and 16 vowel symbols
But it doesn’t end there. The 16 vowel symbols can be combined to make up to 32 different vowel forms. And you thought learning 26 letters was hard…
When written, Thai script has no spaces between words. Spaces are only used to mark the end of a clause or sentence. There are also no lower or uppercase letters and very little by way of punctuation. To the untrained eye, Thai script can sometimes appear like a wall of squiggles!
When spoken, Thai is a tonal language. Reminiscent of Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese, it has five distinct tones.
Learning to read the language is difficult, but learning a few simple Thai phrases before you go travelling is easy and can really enhance your experience!
19. Beer in Thailand is often served with ice
It’s a weird concept that takes some getting used to but Thai beer is usually served with a glass and ice. As strange as this feels to European or American travellers visiting the region, it’s the most effective way of keeping your beer cool in Thailand’s sweltering climate!
20. Thailand has some serious lèse majesté laws — pay attention to them!
Thailand’s lèse majesté laws mean that any disrespect towards royalty can be punished by imprisonment. What constitutes disrespect goes so far that if Thai royalty are walking in Bangkok, the overhead walkways and monorails will stop. This is to prevent any “normal” person from passing above the head of royalty! It’s also illegal to stand on Thai currency because that would be like standing on the king.
It’s worth knowing that lèse majesté laws are more regularly enforced today than ever. In 2017, a 33-year-old Thai person was convicted of sharing 10 Facebook photos and comments about the royal family. He was sentenced to 35 years in jail. The punishment was reduced from 70 years as part of a plea deal.
21. The traditional Thai greeting is called “Wai” (pronounced “why”)
If you’ve been to Thailand, you’ve seen the greeting. It involves pressing your palms together and bowing your head to meet your fingertips. It’s a sign of respect for younger people to greet older people first.
Men will say “Sawatdee Khrap” and women “Sawatdee Ka” during the greeting.. The wai is also used when apologising or saying goodbye.
22. In 1999, barrels of Agent Orange were dug up while upgrading an airport
After the Vietnam War, American forces stationed in Thailand went home, leaving barrels of harmful chemicals behind.
They were based in Thailand because it gave them a safe place to rest, train and prepare for upcoming missions into Vietnam. However, some Vietnamese sympathisers in Thailand were giving the US forces a hard time. To protect their bases, the American troops used the powerful herbicide, Agent Orange, to clear foliage around their locations — preventing enemies getting to the fence line unseen.
This was the same herbicide the American military dropped on vast swathes of Vietnam. The same herbicide that darkens the skin, causes liver problems and severe skin diseases. The same herbicide that continues to cause miscarriages, deformities and birth defects to this day.
When the American forces went home, they left their barrels of agent orange behind. And what’s the best way to deal with barrels of hazardous material? Bury it and not tell anyone. Obviously.
So in 1999, when construction workers in Thailand were upgrading the airport near Hua Hin District, about 100km from Bangkok, they uncovered barrels of the stuff. The US claimed that the chemicals had degraded over time and were no longer “strong enough to kill a tree”. But other sources claim that the workers fell ill soon after uncovering the barrels.
Whomever you choose to believe, should we not question the wisdom of burying gallons of poison and leaving it to either be uncovered by an unwitting party or to leech into the groundwater?
23. Red Bull came from Thailand
You might be surprised to learn that the flavouring for Austrian drink, Red Bull, is produced in Bangkok. And did you know that the popular Thai energy drink, Krating Daeng, uses the same logo as Red Bull? Thailand and Red Bull are intrinsically linked.
During the 1980s, and before the creation of the Red Bull empire, Dietrich Matescitz was working in Thailand. It was here that he tried the Thai beverage, Krating Daeng. He reports having his jet lag completely cleared by the super sweet, caffeine-filled drink.
Mateschitz saw the potential for worldwide success. But first, he needed to make the drink more palatable for western tastes. To do so, he worked with the creator of Krating Daeng, Chaleo Yoovidhya. They reduced the sugar content and carbonated the drink, without reducing the stimulant effect.
In 1987, the two men founded Red Bull GmbH and today, Red Bull is the world’s most popular energy drink. When Yoovidhya died in 2012, he was a multi-billionaire. Matescitz is still alive and running his beverage empire today.
24. Thailand hosts the world’s biggest yearly water fight
If you want to see an entire nation take to the streets for a giant watertight, Songkran Festival is for you. Celebrated in Thailand between the 13th-15th of April, Songkran is the traditional way to see in Thai new year. It has its roots in the Buddhist traditions of washing and cleansing dating back thousands of years.
Be aware though, no one is safe. No matter where you are in the country, if you’re outside, you’re fair game for a soaking. Police officers, security guards, taxi drivers, teachers, children and tourists, prepare to be drenched. Even if you’re sitting at a table eating, you’re an easy target!
A new year means new beginnings so wash away the previous year and start afresh by getting soaked with the rest of the country!
So there we have it, 24 astounding facts about Thailand. Have we missed your favourite fact? Or have you discovered something amazing during your travels? Let us know in the comments below!
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