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Thailand is one of the most visited countries in the world. Yet, there are many facts which people might not know about the “Land of Smiles”. Even though I’ve spent almost a half year here in total, there are still things I’m learning about the country.
1) It used to be called Siam
For most of its history, the country currently called Thailand was known as Siam. After reforms which occurred in 1932 which transformed the country from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, the name was changed in 1939 to Thailand. In 1945 the name reverted back to Siam and in 1949 it changed back again to Thailand. The word “Thai” refers to the name of the largest ethnic group in the country.
2) The flag of Thailand is designed so it cannot be flown upside down.
The story goes that in 1917, then King of Siam, King Vajiravudh saw the flag being flown upside down during a flood. To ensure that such a thing could never happen again, the King designed a symmetrical flag that would be right side up no matter how it was flown. The previous flag for the Kingdom of Siam was of an elephant with the royal crest on it.
3) Thailand was never colonized by Europeans
Thailand was the only country in South East Asia which was not colonized by Europeans. All of its neighbors were controlled by either the British or the French. Burma and Malaysia being British colonies and Laos and Cambodia being French. Thailand managed to do this by selectively ceding some Malay territories to the British and clever use of negotiations. During WWII, Thailand was allied with Japan, so technically it was never conquered. After WWII it allied itself with the United States, which helped keep it free of the communist revolutions which swept through Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
4) There are many parallels between the former King of Thailand and the Queen of England
His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away in 2016, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II had many interesting things in common:
- They were two of the longest reigning monarchs in the world. King Bhumibol ascended to the throne on June 9, 1946, and Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne on February 6, 1952. King Bhumibol reigned for 70 years, 126 days, the second longest reign of any monarch in history. Queen Elizabeth has, as of 2019, been on the throne for 67 years. Two of the longest reigns in world history.
- Neither was the heir apparent upon assuming the throne. Queen Elizabeth, by the fact she was a woman, was the heir presumptive to the British monarchy. King Bhumibol was the brother of the young King Ananda Mahidol, who died in 1946. Had his brother had a son, he would have been the heir apparent to the Thai throne.
- Both have sons who were crown princes for decades. Prince Charles has been the heir apparent to the British Crown for over 60 years as has former Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn in Thailand. Both were the longest-serving crown princes in their respective countries.
5) Bangkok is one of the most visited cities in the world
Bangkok is the most visited city in the world as of 2017, edging out Dubai, London, and Paris. In 2017 they received over 20 million visitors. Surprisingly, the percentage of the Thai economy which comes from tourism is actually less than some European countries like Spain.
6) Bangkok is actually not the name of the capital of Thailand
The name of the city of Bangkok in Thai is “Krung Thep”. However, that is actually a shortened version of the full name of the city which is “Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit”, which translates to “The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city (of Ayutthaya) of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn.” If you don’t use spaces (which they don’t in Thai) the translated version would come in at 163 characters, make it the longest place name in the world.
The word “Bangkok” actually comes from the name of the original settlement on the other side of the river, currently the Thonburi district of the city, which dates back to 1782.
7) Thailand has had over 21 successful and attempted military coups in the last 100 years
Military coups are almost a national sport in Thailand. Since 1912 there have been 20 attempted or successful coups in Thailand. They have occurred in: 1912, 1917, 1932, 1933, 1939, 1947, 1948, 1949, June 1951, December 1951, 1957, 1958, 1971, 1976, March 1977, October 1977, 1981, 1985, 1991, 2006, and 2014.
8) Bangkok is the hottest city in the world
The World Meteorological Organization declared Bangkok to be the hottest city in the world with a median air temperature of 28°C (82.4°F). While there are many desert cities in the world that have higher peak temperatures, they also get much colder in the evenings and in the winter. Bangkok is warm all year long and never gets cold.
9) All of the men in Thailand had to be Buddhist monks at one point.
In the past, all men had to spend time as a Buddhist monk before they turned 20 years old. This included this King of Thailand. The period of time would often only be for a few months. Unlike western monasticism, there are no long term vows when becoming a Buddhist monk.
10) Red Bull has its origins in Thailand.
Despite being an Austrian company today, Red Bull is based on the drink known as Krating Daeng which was introduced in Thailand in the 1970s. The logo for Krating Daeng is almost identical to the current Red Bull logo except for the text in Thai. Dietrich Mateschitz launched Red Bull in 1987 and modified the taste of Krating Daeng to be more palatable for westerners. Today Red Bull GmbH is 51% owned by the Yoovidhya Family, the descendants of Chaleo Yoovidhya who invented Krating Daeng.
11) You might find yourself unexpectedly standing at attention for the Thai national anthem.
In some countries like the United States, the national anthem is played before the start of sporting events. In Thailand, it is also played at the start of movies, and also in public places at 8 am and 6 pm when the flag is raised and lowered. If you find yourself somewhere at those times and everyone stands up and silence, just stand up and remain silent for a few minutes until the anthem is completed. It is considered offensive to remain seated during the anthem.
12) Thailand has been a shooting location for many Hollywood Films.
Thailand served as the backdrop for many major Hollywood films. Some of the notable films shot in Thailand include:
- The Hangover Part II
- Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith
- Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason
- The Deer Hunter
- Around the World in Eighty Days
- The Killing Fields
- The Beach
- Rambo: First Blood Part II
- The Man with the Golden Gun
- Cutthroat Island
- Tomorrow Never Dies
- Mortal Kombat: Annihilation
13) Every year Thailand has the world’s largest water fight.
The Thai new year is called Songkran, and for 3 days the entire country is a giant water fight. The origins of the tradition go back to the use of water to clean and purify temples during the new year. At some point, this morphed into buckets of water and super soakers. Anyone walking around outside during Songkran is liable to get wet, and it doesn’t matter if you have an expensive camera without or not.
14) The Thai government funds Thai restaurants in other countries.
Every wonder why there are so many Thai restaurants, especially given the number of Thai people in a given community? It is because the Thai government actually funds Thai nationals living overseas to create Thai restaurants. The Export-Import Bank of Thailand provides loans and the government helps with the logistics of running the restaurant. This is all in the name of cultural promotion and foreign policy.
15) Thai is one of the most complicated languages in the world.
The Thai language is extremely complex. It has 44 consonants, 32 vowels, and 6 tones. In comparison, Mandarin Chinese has only 4 tones. The written language has 44 consonant symbols and 15 vowel symbols that combine with 28 vowel symbols and four tone diacritical symbols. In fact, it is not a true alphabet, but rather is an abugida which Wikipedia calls “a segmental writing system in which consonant-vowel sequences are written as a unit”.
16) Thailand has over 1,400 islands.
Thailand has an enormous number of islands considering that the vast majority of the population and land area is on the Asian continental landmass. Most of the islands are in the southern part of the country in the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. The number of islands and its location in tropical latitudes makes for excellent SCUBA diving.
17) There are 5 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Thailand.
As of 2019 there are five world heritage sites in Thailand. They are:
- Ban Chiang Archaeological Site
- Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex
- Historic City of Ayutthaya
- Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns
- Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries