Often referred to as ‘the Land of Smiles’, Thailand is renowned for the welcoming and warm disposition of its culture and people. Rice plantations and ornate temples are interspersed in and around busy cosmopolitan cities, reflecting the diversity of landscapes and lifestyles. Being a historically autonomous Asian kingdom, Thailand is significantly influenced by its traditions. Buddhism and the monarchy have historically been seen as sources of order and stability in society and continue to act as symbols of unity for the Thai people. Yet, the culture is also accommodating of contemporary practices and values. Many Thai people have embraced progressive ideas as their country has globalised. This is reflected in the country’s capital, Bangkok, which is a vibrant cosmopolitan city containing a melting pot of traditional influences and contemporary attitudes.
Harmony and Respect
Despite the fact that Thailand is often promoted as a ‘partying’ tourist destination for Australians, Thai society is quite modest and conservative. The concept of '' is one of the underpinning factors influencing the way in which Thais behave and interact with one another. refers to a person’s or a collective’s reputation, dignity and honour. Through actions such as complimenting a person, demonstrating respect or increasing another’s self-esteem, one can give . Moreover, pointing out someone’s error, criticising them or raising one’s voice are all seen as actions that can cause a loss of and bring shame. Thus, can also be lost, saved or maintained. In cultures that have an awareness of , individuals typically act deliberately and with to protect their self-worth and peer perception.
Generally speaking, conservative conduct is the norm as people wish to maintain between each other and show everyone the amount of respect they deserve. To preserve peace and minimise risk of losing , Thais are often contemplative and deliberate in how they present themselves. A harmonious demeanour and calm disposition is the norm, while excessive displays of negative emotions (e.g. anger, selfishness) or outbursts are avoided.
Hierarchy and Loyalty
Many social interactions among Thai people take into account another individual’s status relative to one’s self (i.e. their age, level of education, line of work). In nearly all cases, how one sits, walks or otherwise interacts with others will depend upon the status of each person present. Therefore, it is not uncommon for Thais to ask personal questions to discern your status to ensure they address you correctly and behave appropriately. For example, Thai people indicate respect with the depth of a wai (see The Wai in ‘Greetings’) and also by using honourifics that indicate both affection and relation. On a broader level, the highest level of respect is awarded to the king and the monastic community.
While there is a certain amount of social mobility in Thailand, people generally do not challenge the hierarchical structure. Rather, they tend to observe the chain of authority and accept the differences in status among people. Being a society, strong emphasis is placed on honouring and being loyal towards one’s family. Indeed, loyalty to one’s family, friends or community will, at times, override social rules. For example, Thais rarely jeopardise the interests of the collective group and often take responsibility for fellow members.
National Identity and Freedom
In 1939, the country changed its name from ‘Siam’ to ‘Thailand’, signifying “the Land of the Free”. This rhetoric of freedom has since played a significant role in constructing Thailand’s national identity. Thais generally value their freedom of personal expression, speech and religion. The country’s history of evading by European nation states has also contributed to the sense of pride and value in freedom and autonomy. However, despite the cultural value placed on freedom of expression, laws limit the extent to which Thais can criticise or insult the two fundamental institutions of their society: the royal family and Buddhism. Additionally, the experience of freedom for the Thai people has been marred by underlying tensions since the 2014 military coup. Common feelings regarding the current unstable political situation include uncertainty, lack of trust and fears about the status of in the country.
The name ‘Thailand’ was also intended to represent “the Land of the Thai”. The government's establishment of a ‘Thai identity’ in the late 1950s was part of a national rhetoric to affirm a unified ‘Thai culture’ associated with the ‘Central Tai’ – the dominant group in Thailand. This concept of a Thai identity was used in part to challenge the Chinese within the country. Chinese have long played a significant role in Thailand’s business and commerce sectors. Few professions are monopolised by a single group, but it is commonplace to encounter stereotypes of Chinese-Thai as people of commerce. Although the rhetoric of a unified national Thai identity persists, there is recognition of the diversity between people of different regional backgrounds.
With the country’s long history of monarchical rule, the king plays a central role in Thai culture. Officially, the king is the head of state, and he occasionally intervenes in political affairs. The recently deceased king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, ruled from 1946 to 2016, making him the world’s longest-reigning monarch. Sometimes known as the ‘heart of the Thai people’, Abulyadej is given the utmost respect as many saw him as a national symbol of Thai identity and unity. Images of the recent monarch pervade the daily life of Thais, frequently appearing in public as well as in people’s homes as a constant reminder of a unified ‘Thai identity’. This is also evident in Australia, with many Thai restaurants showcasing a portrait of the recent king.
Showing disrespect for the king and the royal family is illegal and a social taboo. Citizens are restricted from exhibiting behaviour that could be interpreted as defamatory or critical of the royal family. However, this makes it hard to determine whether some Thais defer out of true respect or out of obedience.
Over the past few years, the political structure of Thailand has received significant international attention due to shifts in governance. Opinions about the current and future political status are quite contentious among the Thai people. Currently, many Thais are mourning the recent loss of their beloved king and also have particular concerns and fears directed towards the future of the country, given the departure of Thailand’s symbol of unity.
“Mai pen rai” (nevermind) is a Thai expression that reflects the overarching approach to life that “it is to be enjoyed”. Thais generally have a strong work ethic yet are simultaneously willing to be content with what they have. This attitude is reflected in ‘sanuk’, the effort to achieve satisfaction in whatever one does and make the most of any situation. This can be seen in the way some Thais inject playfulness and fun into mundane activities. Indeed, it is common to see Thai people smiling and laughing when interacting with others.
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