PEOPLE OF THAILAND
The people of Thailand are called Thais, which can refer both to the citizens of Thailand and ethnic Thais, who are related to ethnic Lao in Laos. There are over 67 million people in Thailand (estimated 2012). About 34 percent of the people in Thailand live in urban areas (compared to 82 percent in the U.S.). The other 66 percent live mostly in small agricultural villages.
Approximately 75 percent of the population are Thai, and 14 percent are ethnic Chinese. Other ethnic groups include Malay-speaking Muslims (4 percent), Khmers (1.3 percent), Soai, or Kui (1.3 percent), Karen (1.3 percent), and Indians and Pakistanis (.4 percent). The hill tribes of the north make up about eight percent of Thailand’s population. The 20 million or so Lao-speaking Lao Isan that live in Northeast Thailand are regarded as very different from other Thais but are still considered Thais.
The Thai population is diverse in ethnicity and race, comprising citizens of Thai, Chinese, Mon, Khmer, Lao, and Indian descent. Moreover, residents in each region of the country tend to have specific characteristics and appearance, due to differences in the environment and geographical features. It has been observed that Thais in the North, for instance, living in a cool climate, surrounded by mountains, tend to be calm, gentle, and soft-spoken, while their counterparts in the South are terse in their speech and quick in decision-making, as they live by the sea, with ever-changing weather, forcing them to face adventures at sea quite often.
1) Noun: Thai (singular and plural). Adjective: Thai. Languages: Thai, English (secondary language of the elite), ethnic and regional dialects. Religions: Thai 75 percent, Chinese 14 percent, other 11 percent. Languages: Thai, English (secondary language of the elite), ethnic and regional dialects Religions: Buddhist (official) 94.6 percent, Muslim 4.6 percent, Christian 0.7 percent, other 0.1 percent (2000 census). [Source: CIA World Factbook]
The Thais are also known as Khon Thai, Central Thai, Siamese, Tai, Syamm, and T’ai. They make up about three quarters of the population of Thailand and live mostly in central and southern Thailand and have traditionally been based in the central alluvial plain around the Chao Phraya River, which runs through Bangkok. Many of the people in northern Thailand are Lao Isan, which is sometimes considered a different ethnic group.
The Thai people are part of the larger Tai ethnolinguistic peoples found in Thailand and adjacent countries in Southeast Asia as well as southern China. Their language is the Thai language, which is classified as part of the Tai–Kadai family of languages. The majority of Thai are followers of Theravada Buddhism.
The term “Thai people” has a loose meaning and also refers to the population of Thailand in general (though Thai Malay people consider themselves Malayu)— not only to ethnic Thais. Small Thai groups include the Shan in the Mae Hong Son area, the Thai Lus in Chiang Rai, the Lao Song on Phetburi, the Thai Khorat in Khorat and the Yaw in Nakhon Phanom. "Thai people" includes the Central Thais or Siamese of the Chao Phraya delta area around Bangkok, the Northern Thai (Lanna), the Thai Lao or Isan people of northeastern Thailand and Thai Pak Tai of southern Thailand. Each group speaks its own Thai dialect and has customs and characteristics unique to the region they live in.
The Thais are a very strong and independent people who love their King and their free spirited way of life. While its neighbors were colonized by France and Britain, Thailand, or Siam as it was known in the past, remained independent. It also managed to largely stay out of the fray during the Vietnam War and Khmer Rouge.
Almost all Thais are lactase deficient. This means they have problems digesting milk products.
Origin of theThais
The Thai people are thought to have originated in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. They are related to other people that either live there now or originated there such as the Dai and the Lao. The Thais began migrating southward in successive waves, perhaps as early as A.D. 1050.
According to the Library of Congress: The forebears of the modern Thai were Tai-speaking people living south of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) on the mountainous plateau of what is now the Chinese province of Yunnan. Early Chinese records (the first recorded Chinese reference to the Tai is dated sixth century B.C.) document the Tai cultivating wetland rice in valley and lowland areas. During the first millennium A.D., before the emergence of formal states governed by Tai-speaking elites, these people lived in scattered villages drawn together into muang, or principalities. Each muang was governed by a chao, or lord, who ruled by virtue of personal qualities and a network of patron-client relationships. Often the constituent villages of a muang would band together to defend their lands from more powerful neighboring peoples, such as the Chinese and Vietnamese.
Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “Early Thais, often classified with the broader Austro-Thai group, were nomadic and their original homeland a matter of academic debate. While most scholars favour a region vaguely stretching from Guangxi in southern China to Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam, a more radical theory says the Thais descended from an ocean-based civilisation in the western Pacific. The oceanic proponents trace the development of symbols and myths in Thai art and culture to arrive at their conclusions. This vast, non-unified zone of Austro-Thai influence spread all over Southeast Asia at various times. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]
“In Thailand, these Austro-Thai groups belonged to the Thai-Kadai and Mon-Khmer language families. The Thai-Kadai is the most significant ethno-linguistic group in all of Southeast Asia, with 72 million speakers extending from the Brahmaputra River in India’s Assam state to the Gulf of Tonkin and China’s Hainan Island. To the north, there are Thai-Kadai speakers well into the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi, and to the south they are found as far as the northern Malaysian state of Kedah. In Thailand and Laos they are the majority populations, and in China, Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma) they are the largest minorities. The predominant Thai half of the Thai-Kadai group includes the Ahom (Assam), the Siamese (Thailand), the Black Thai or Thai Dam (Laos and Vietnam), the Thai Yai or Shan (Myanmar and Thailand), the Thai Neua (Laos, Thailand and China), the Thai Lü (Laos, Thailand and China) and the Yuan (Laos and Thailand). The less numerous Kadai groups (under a million) include such comparatively obscure languages in southern China as Kelao, Lati, Laha, Laqua and Li.
“A linguistic map of southern China, northeastern India and Southeast Asia clearly shows that the preferred zones of occupation by the Thai peoples have been river valleys, from the Red (Hong) River in the south of China and Vietnam to the Brahmaputra River in Assam, India. At one time there were two terminals for movement into what is now Thailand. The ‘northern terminal’ was in the Yuan Jiang and other river areas in China’s modern-day Yunnan and Guangxi provinces, and the ‘southern terminal’ along central Thailand’s Mae Nam Chao Phraya (Chao Phraya River). The human populations remain quite concentrated in these areas today, while areas between the two were merely intermediate relay points and have always been less populated.
“The Mekong River valley between Thailand and Laos was one such intermediate zone, as were river valleys along the Nan, Ping, Kok, Yom and Wang Rivers in northern Thailand, plus various river areas in Laos and also in the Shan State of Myanmar. As far as historians have been able to piece together, significant numbers of Austro-Thai peoples in southern China or northern Vietnam probably began migrating southward and westward in small groups as early as the 8th century AD – most certainly by the 10th century.
“These migrant Thais established local polities along traditional social schemata according to meuang (roughly ‘principality’ or ‘city-state’), under the rule of chieftains or sovereigns (jâo meuang). Each meuang was based in a river valley or section of a valley and some were loosely collected under one jâo meuang or an alliance of several. Wherever Thais met indigenous populations of Tibeto-Burmans and Mon-Khmers in the move south and westward (into what is now Myanmar, Thailand and Laos), they were somehow able to displace, assimilate or co-opt them without force. The most probable explanation for this relatively smooth assimilation is that there were already Thai peoples indigenous to the area.
The Thai and Other Tai-Speaking Peoples
The core Thai — the Central Thai, the Northeastern Thai (Thai-Lao), the Northern Thai, and the Southern Thai — spoke dialects of one of the languages of the Tai language family. The peoples who spoke those languages — generically also referred to as Tai — originated in southern China, but they were dispersed throughout mainland Southeast Asia from Burma to Vietnam. It was conventional in the 1980s to refer to Tai-speaking peoples in Thailand as Thai (same pronunciation) with a regional or other qualifier, e.g., Central Thai. There were, however, groups in Thailand in the late twentieth century who spoke a language of the Tai family but who were not part of the core population. [Source: Library of Congress]
Although the four major Tai-speaking groups taken together clearly constituted the overwhelming majority of Thailand's population, it was not entirely clear what proportion of the core Thai fell into each of the regional categories. Among the reasons for the uncertainty were the movements of many who were not Central Thai in origin into the Bangkok area and its environs and the movement of Central Thai, perhaps in smaller numbers, into other regions as administrators, educators, technicians, bureaucrats, soldiers, and sometimes as settlers. The Central Thai, of generally higher status than the general populace, tended to retain their identities wherever they lived, whereas those from other regions migrating to the central plain might seek to take on Central Thai speech, customs, and identity.
Although politically, socially, and culturally dominant, the Central Thai did not constitute a majority of the population and barely exceeded the Thai-Lao in numbers, according to a mid-1960s estimate. At that time, the Central Thai made up roughly 32 percent of the population, with the Thai-Lao a close second at about 30 percent. The Thai-Lao were essentially the same ethnic group that constituted the dominant population of Laos, although they far outnumbered the population of that country.
In terms of language and culture, both the Northeastern Thai and the Northern Thai were closer to the peoples of Laos than to the Central Thai. Speakers of the Tai language of Kham Mu'ang (known as Yuan in its written form) made up the majority of the population of the 9 northernmost provinces from the Burmese-Lao border down through the province of Uttaradit, an area of about 102,000 square kilometers. Highly independent, the Northern Thai lived mainly in small river valleys where they grew glutinous rice as their staple food. The Chakkri Dynasty continued to maintain a court in Chiang Mai, the largest city of the North, which the Thai people looked to as a major religious and cultural center.
Generally, before the trend toward homogenization of dress, language, and forms of entertainment fostered by modern communication, there were regional differences in costume, folklore, and other aspects of culture among the Thai people. The continuing retention of these differences into the 1980s seemed to be a function of relative remoteness from Bangkok and other urban areas. Of some importance, according to observers, was the tendency to cling to, and even accentuate, these regional differences as symbols of a sense of grievance. The number of persons belonging to groups other than the core Thai was difficult to specify precisely, whether membership in those groups was defined by language, by other features of culture, or by an individual's self-identification. Part of the problem was the Thai government's policy of promoting assimilation but not encouraging the active collection of data on Thai ethnicity. Government statistics on aliens, tribal minorities, and refugees were more readily available, although sometimes disputed by both scholars and the groups in question.
A number of linguistic scholars mark the reign of King Narai (1657-88) as the point when the Central Thai (or Ayutthaya Thai) dialect was established as the standard to which other forms or dialects were compared. Central Thai was the required form used in modern Thailand for official, business, academic, and other daily transactions. From Ayutthayan times, Central Thai borrowed words from Khmer, Pali, and Sanskrit. Thailand still maintained a court language called Phasa Ratchasap, although King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX, 1946- ) encouraged the use of Central Thai. Similarly, Pali, the religious language, although still used, gradually was being replaced by Central Thai for many ceremonies and writings. Although the Thai Royal Academy was the final arbiter of new words added to the language, post-World War II Thai has been influenced heavily by American English, especially in the area of science and technology. [Source: Library of Congress]
Increasingly, Central Thai was spoken with varied fluency all over the country as the education system reached larger numbers of children. Nevertheless, regional dialects (or their local variants) remained the language of the home and of the local community. Learning Central Thai is not a simple matter. The dialects of the four regional components of the core population are only mutually intelligible with difficulty. There are lexical and syntactic differences as well as differences in pronunciation.
Differences in dialect were sometimes an irritant in relations between those whose native tongue was Central Thai and persons from other regions. On the one hand, if persons migrating from other regions to Bangkok spoke their own dialect, they might be treated with contempt by the Central Thai. If, on the other hand, such persons failed to speak Central Thai with sufficient fluency and a proper accent, that, too, could lead to their being treated disrespectfully.
Dominance of Central Thai Culture in Thailand
At the heart of regional and ethnic relations in Thailand is the social, linguistic, and political dominance of the Central Thai—descendants of the subjects of the premodern kingdoms of the Chao Phraya floodplain. The Central Thai are defined as those who considered central Thailand their birthplace or the Central Thai (Standard Thai) dialect their first language. With the advent of increased migration, modern communication, and education, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to use language to determine place of origin. [Source: Library of Congress]
In the past, the government took the position that all Tai people should be accorded all the rights, privileges, and opportunities that went with being a citizen. In the 1980s, members of non-Tai minority groups were being afforded similar rights, and efforts were being made to incorporate them into the Ekkalak Thai. The higher a person's aspirations, however, the more thoroughly he or she needed to assimilate into Central Thai culture. Thus, most of the representatives of the government were either from Central Thailand or had absorbed the perspective of that region.
In the past, some Thai governments put great pressure on the various Thai peoples to forsake regional customs and dialects for "modern" Central Thai culture. By law the Central Thai dialect was taught in all government schools, and all who aspired to government positions, from village headman on up, were expected to master Central Thai. Nonetheless, because local dialects remained the medium of communication in schools, markets, and provincial government offices, differences between the Central Thai and other dialects survived. The Central Thai tended to see other Thai as both different and inferior. In turn, the latter saw the Central Thai as exploiters. Inevitably, many non-Central Thai sometimes felt inferior to the Central Thai, who represented progress, prestige, wealth, and national power.
In the 1980s, however, there was a rebirth of the study and teaching of local languages, especially Lan Na Thai in the North and also the Southern Thai dialect. Efforts were also made to expose all Thai to the different cultures and traditions of the various regions through regional translation and art programs. At the same time, Central Thai became more readily accepted as a second language. The success of the national identity programs could be explained in part by the Thai literacy rate, one of the highest in Asia.
Large Thai Minority Groups in Thailand
The “Pak Tai” and Southern Thai live in 14 different provinces in southern Thailand. There are about 5 million of them. They have traditionally been wet rice cultivators and cattle breeders. Although most of them are Buddhists, more than one million are Muslims. They speak a variety of Tai dialects often referred to as dambro. See Separate Section for more on them.
The Lao Isan are essentially Lao that live in northeastern Thailand Also known as the Northeastern Thai, Thai Lao, Isan, Issan or Isaan, they are mostly Buddhists who speak a Lao dialect of the Thai language, which is also spoken by lowland Lao in Laos.See Separate Section for more on them.
The Yuan are a Tai-speaking group that dominates the Chiang Mai region of northern Thailand. There are about 6 million of them. There also a few thousand in Laos. Also known as the Lanatai, Lao and Youanne, Youon and Yun, they have traditionally had more in common with the Lao—their northern Pali-language, their Buddhist customs, their script, their polite terms and temple architecture—than the Thais. The Yuan have largely been assimilated into Thai society but still maintain string connections with the Mekong regions and the Lao. The Yuan differ from the Lao of northeastern Thailand in that they tattoo their abdomens and their dialect is different. It is often sometimes said that Northern women are the most beautiful and people the friendliest and most polite in Thailand.
The Tai-speaking peoples of Northeast Thailand and the Khorat Plateau are known as the Thai-Lao, Isan, Lao Isan or Northeastern Thai. Essentially Laotians of Thai origin, they speak Isan, which is extremely close to the standard language of Laos, located across the Mekong River from Northeast Thailand. The northeastern region is also called Isan in the Thai language and sometimes spelled Isaan.
The Northeast is the most populated and poorest of Thailand’s four regions. It is home to a third of Thailand’s 67 million people. The culture and language are strongly influenced by their Khmer and Lao counterparts, Most of its people are Isan (Lao) speakers. The Isan have their own styles of music and are regarded as the best silk weavers in Thailands. Many are subsistence farmers or poor workers for sugar growers, who are either heavily in debt or barely get by. Many have been forced into debt by corrupt village headman, working in cahoots with wealthy landowners, using unscrupulous methods.
About 80 percent of Isaan people farmers or farm workers. Many are employed by sugar cane barons and motorbike is regarded as a symbol of wealth. Incomes, education levels and health standards are lower than elsewhere in the country. Thais from outside the region tend to regard those from the Northeast as slow, backward and ignorant. It has traditionally been ignored by national-level politics. Many of the migrants to Bangkok are Northeasterners who have come there in search of opportunities. With wages in Bangkok being 12 times higher than those in the Northeast it is no surprise that one out of every six Thais works there is from the Northeast. Many are young people, both men and women that engage in menial or physical labor-related jobs and send money back home. “Most Isaan people have very little education, so they get the dirty jobs (housemaid and construction work) that no one else wants to do. They’ve become the driving force that keeps things moving,” the Isan cartoonist Padung Kraisri told The Star.
Philip Golingai wrote in The Star, “The people's poverty is also compounded by a high birth rate. And their plight gets more difficult with each generation, as a family owns only one or two rai (1,600 sq m) of rice field to distribute among numerous children, explained Padung. So, like Noo Hin, when the children get older they have to migrate to bigger towns, especially Bangkok, to earn money. And in general, Bangkokians have a negative perception of northeasterners such as most bargirls are from Isaan. [Source: Philip Golingai, The Star, March 24, 2007]
According to Lonely Planet the 19 northeast provinces that make up Isaan are Thailand’s forgotten backyard. The guidebook states that “this colossal corner of the country continues to live life on its own terms: slowly, steadily and with a profound respect for both heritage and history.” Padung told the Star that despite Isaan’s unforgiving climate of persistent drought, its people have always remained in the region. “And they have kept their way of life. That is why many people feel that the real Thailand is in Isaan,” he said. The northeast also has its own distinctive celebrations such as the Bun Bung Fai (Rocket) Festival, were villagers construct large skyrockets of bamboo, which they then fire into the sky to bring rain for their rice fields. The region is also know for the ghost masks from the Phi Tha Khon Festival, khoon (cheerful yellow flower of Isaan) and Isaan musical instruments.
Chang and End, the Original Siamese Twins
Chang and Eng Bunker, a pair of twins bound together by a six-inch tube of flesh and ligament in their breastbones, were named Siamese twins after their native country. They were born in 1811 on a houseboat to Chinese parents near Samut Songkhram, a town about to miles southwest of Bangkok. They left Siam at the age of 17 on a ship bound for Boston. Chang and Eng were the subject of a bestselling novel by Dan Strauss called “Chang and Eng”. Their story was also made into A Singaporean musical. connected at the chest by a six-inch-long tube of flesh, were totally exceptional. Today Siamese twins are conjoined twins.
In Boston, the were dubbed “The United Brothers,” and audiences paid 50 cents a piece to see them. The toured the world in freak shows and settled in Mount Airy, North Carolina, where the worked adjoining farms, and became U.S. citizens. In 1843 they married two normal and attractive sisters, Adelaide and Sarah Yates, and over years produced 21 children. How the had sex has been a matter of considerable speculation.
Chang and Eng lived remarkable normal; lives considering their circumstances. They spoke fluent English and learned to walk, swim and rwo together. Although the could surgically separated today back then such an operation was deemed too dangerous to even attempt. The continued to tour in freak shows until 1970. Chang became an alcoholic and died in 1974 at the age of 62. Eng, who abstained from drinking, and appeared to have been in perfect health died three hours later.
Other famous Thai twins include Aree and Naree Wongluekiet, who at 13 became the youngest players to compete in the LPGA; Sonchat and Soncahi Ratiwtana, tennis doubles champions; Suchart and uchai Jaovisdha, who directs of important government ministries. And Johnny and Luther too, mystical pre-teen rebel insurgent leaders.
Life of Chang and End
On their life together, Cathy Newman wrote in National Geographic: “Chang and Eng, who could move gracefully in tandem, do gymnastic feats, and play chess, understood enterprise. As the "Double Boys" they packed theaters and made a fortune—mostly for their promoters. At 21 they broke loose to manage their own careers. When a doctor who attended their show in New York invited them to visit the Mount Airy region, they took up the offer, bought land, and settled in as farmers. [Source: Cathy Newman, National Geographic, June 2006]
“The twins loved fine cigars, literature, and smart clothes. Eng, the calm one, liked late-night poker. Chang drank and had a temper. Today, when someone like Sherry Blackmon says, "That's just the way the Bunkers are," she's referring to that temper. "Of course, I can talk about the Bunkers because I married one," says Blackmon, whose husband, Zack, is a great-great-grandson of Eng. Bunkers can turn reticent, too. "They might talk to you. Then again, they might not." They are noted for honesty, for being loving parents, and, sometimes, for holding grudges. "They don't argue; they just might not talk to you for 20 years," another relative explains. The twins, you see, produced a perfectly normal family.
“Chang and Eng Bunker, extraordinary by being on the wrong side of genetic odds, longed for the ordinary. When they met the Yates sisters, who lived down the road, Chang decided it was time to marry. "We are not responsible for our physical condition, and we should not have to die childless on that account," he told his brother. Chang successfully courted Adelaide; Eng followed suit with sister Sarah. "May the connection be as happy as it will be close," observed the Carolina Watchman on the occasion of the double-double wedding.
“After 14 years of living as a foursome, strain overtook family harmony. The twins split their property, built separate houses, and arranged to spend three days in one house with one family, then three days in the other. Stewarts Creek defines the boundary between properties, and today, at least one Chang relative refers to Eng's people as "the other side of the creek."
Descendants Chang and End in Mount Airy, North Carolina
Cathy Newman wrote in National Geographic: “Their descendants—some 1,500—have scattered across the country, but many still live in Mount Airy, a town of 8,000 north of Winston-Salem, where the slow roll of the Piedmont plateau lifts to the Blue Ridge Mountains. In Mount Airy, a common form of address is "Honey," the soft drink of choice is Cheerwine, spiritual tastes run to Baptist and fundamentalist.” Mount Airy is also the birthplace of TV star Andy Griffith and many tourists visit it for its Mayberry connection. [Source: Cathy Newman, National Geographic, June 2006]
“Eng's house burned down 50 years ago, but Chang's house is owned today by Kester Sink, whose late wife, Adelaide, was a Chang granddaughter. Sink, a successful businessman who owns the largest remaining chunk of Bunker land, does not suffer fools, and ferociously protects the Bunker legacy. "They were not freaks," he says with a stare that dares you to think otherwise. "They were human beings who had a tremendous physical adversity to overcome. They left their home in Siam, their mother and family, and immediately picked up the language, mores, and manners of their adopted country. They were gutsy, smart, and self-confident."
“Open admiration for the twins was not always a given. The older generation preferred a tight-lipped approach. Jessie Bunker Bryant, the 79-year-old grande dame and the force behind the annual family reunion, tells of the Bunker bride who didn't know about her famous relatives until the night before her wedding. "Your fiancé may not want to go ahead with this," warned her mother after disclosing the family secret. Happily, the revelation charmed the groom-to-be. Attitudes loosened over time. "I am just so proud. Why, I wouldn't be here if it weren't for them," says Betty Bunker Blackmon, while June Ross Bunker of Richmond, Virginia, once opined that "it sure beats having horse thieves in the family." Since everything is relative, the fuss mystifies some. "Why, they was just normal family," says Virginia Bunker, a Bunker by marriage.
“Succeeding generations have produced 11 sets of twins, all normal. The first born since the original set were Eng's great-grandsons, also named Chang and Eng Bunker, now 65 years old. They are fraternal, not identical, and bear some of the Asian traits of their ancestors. "We'd get teased all the time when we were in school," Eng recalls, adding softly that they gave as good as they got. "After all, it was four fists against them instead of two."
“Most visitors come to Mount Airy searching for the nostalgic simplicity of Mayberry, unmindful of its connection to the Siamese twins. But seven years ago, a pediatric surgeon from England was directed to Tanya Blackmon Jones, who runs the Surry Arts Council, the town's cultural center. The surgeon, it turned out, specialized in separating conjoined twins. In the 19th century Chang and Eng had no such option. Although they consulted many famous doctors, all advised separation would be fatal.
"The surgeon sat in my office and wanted to talk," Jones recalls. Most of all he wanted to talk about one of his cases: conjoined sisters with organ sets that seemed perfectly intact and separate. The surgical team waited until the twins were old enough to withstand the operation. When separated, one twin died. Her weaker heart couldn't tolerate the surgery. The doctor looked stricken. "Just because we can separate them, does it mean we should?" he asked.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
Last updated May 2014