Attracting 15-20 million visitors a year, Thailand is one of Asia’s most popular destinations and is known the world over for its beautiful scenery, friendly people, spicy food and periodic coups!
Thailand depends heavily on tourism, which accounts for a large chunk of its foreign exchange earnings, and has developed a very good infrastructure in major tourist centres, catering equally to backpackers and the five star luxury crowd. English is taught in all schools, but only those working in the tourist industry or sophisticated parts of country have grasped it.
It is a safe, middle-income country that sits proudly among the leaders in Southeast Asia’s ‘tiger economy’ phenomenon. With its enormous natural and human resources Thailand has vastly reduced poverty in the past three decades to become a prosperous Asian country that enjoys a fairly high profile around the world.
Approximately 70 million people live in Thailand, including large Burmese refugee and migrant worker groups. Of those, 70 per cent are of working age, and all but 1.5 per cent are gainfully employed. Infant mortality rates are relatively low for a developing country and the HIV population is estimated to be 1.5-2 per cent.
There is a sizeable (10 per cent) ethic Chinese minority who are well integrated into mainstream society but noted for dominating business and wealth. There is also a significant Malay Moslem minority in the South, but more than 90 per cent of the population are Buddhist. Literacy rate was identified as 90 per cent in a 2000 census. The Thai people have been part of a mostly unified Kingdom that stretches back to the Sukhothai era of the 14th century but have inhabited the area for more than a millennium.
The monarchy of Thailand is held in very high esteem by all Thais largely due to a culture of respect and praise for its royalty, but also as a result of the achievements and popularity of the present King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), who has reigned for more than sixty years. During that time he has tirelessly served and helped uplift his people with genuine policies and actions.
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with the King as ceremonial Head of State, although he exercises great moral authority. Thailand’s seventy five year road of democracy has been fraught with coups, counter-coups, military regimes and weak coalition governments that collapse, on average, every 18 months. Although the era of economic-inspired governments is now at least a decade old, Thailand surprised the world in September 2006 with yet another coup (its 17th) to peacefully unseat the deeply divisive Thaksin Shinawatra who was accused of megalomania and poor ethics. Ironically, he had been the first elected prime minister to see out a full term and boast a landslide re-election victory.
The military appointed government that acted as a year-long caretaker proved even less popular for their inaction, and the 2007 election returned a proxy party of Thaksin’s to power. However, they lasted less than a year as it became increasingly obvious they were striving to whitewash Thaksin’s charges. Eventually the ruling party was disbanded after a guilty vote buying verdict, and a minority government was formed by the opposition from the fallout. This proved even more unpopular with the poor masses who preferred to see the return of Thaksin. And so goes Thai politics in a recurring nightmare of bickering and deception. Thaksin remains in exile, avoiding jail time on a corruption verdict, but has been agitating for a return one way or another.
Geography and agriculture
Thailand is a richly endowed country that boast both a vast fertile rice growing basin and stunning scenery that generates such tourism interest. Abundant fishing in the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman waters, along with rubber and fruit harvesting and plentiful rains across most the country ensure everyone is well fed, with enough to export. It extends more than 2,000kms from North to South and 500kms across, with a long coastline and fairly important strategic location.
Central Thailand is largely flat and well irrigated, while the North is dominated by the tail end of the Himalaya range, with sub-tropical mountainous forests up to 2,500m. Only just inside the tropics this region gets dry and somewhat cold in the highlands during the cool season but receives sufficient rain, presenting an interesting tourist destination.
By contrast the Northeast, known as Isaan, is a large drought-prone plateau that accounts for the largest concentration of the population and poorest region. Soil fertility is unreliable and it is the least visited by tourists, yet considered the heartland of the Kingdom.
The South is perhaps the most popular area for tourists, centred around the remarkable karst seascapes of Krabi and Phuket. It’s some of the world’s most unique topography and is responsible for stunning natural designs such as the Phi Phi islands and Railay Beach, while Phuket, Koh Lanta and many more island, such as Samui, Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao on the Gulf side are blessed with gorgeous tropical beaches and waters. The further south you go, the more equatorial and tropical it becomes, though the southern most reaches are presently caught up in a violent insurgency conflict.
East and west of Bangkok – itself a canal criss-crossed lowland area – are the popular destinations of Kanchanburi in the Western border mountains, and the east coast attractions of Pattaya, Koh Samet, the lush Chantaburi hills and rugged Koh Chang island.
For two heady decades at the end of the last century Thailand enjoyed its status as one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and per capita incomes increased 19 fold in thirty years. That was until the Asian financial crash of 1997, which started in Thailand, caused a traumatic fall from grace that took the country five years to recover from. Even today you can see the abandoned shells of ambitious tower buildings across the capital.
Thailand shares a similar politco-economic syndrome with Italy; where its politics is perpetually embroiled in conflict and short-lived coalition governments while the rest of the nation gets on with making money. None-the-less, the recent upheaval, following a few years of stability, have had a drag on the economy at a time when most of the world slumped into a recession. Thailand did not escape, suffering four quarters of economic contraction until emerging in late 2009.
Tasked with steering the country through this, and in need of healthy growth to satisfy a large working class electorate, was the 43 year old Abhisit Vejjajiva; a Oxford educated former economics lecturer turned politician. Unfortunately his lack of experience, fractious coalition and distractions from an opposition determined to bring the government down as quickly as possible, meant his hands were somewhat tied.
Thailand returned to modest growth, though somewhat behind its emerging Southeast Asian neighbours. However, unemployment remains under 5 per cent, the country has the second largest economy in Southeast Asia and the fourth highest per capital income, behind Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia.
A robust economy based on automotive and electronics manufacturing, rice and fruit export and tourism makes it an attractive investment destination, but unclear policies and nationalist xenophobia have discouraged some investors in recent years. For example, policy interference from state monopolies meant 3G broadband had still not been licensed by the end of 2009, making it the last country in Southeast Asia to go wireless.