The Kingdom of Thailand (Prathet Thai, or ‘Land of the Free’), lies in Southeast Asia. It is bordered on the west and northwest by Myanmar (formerly Burma); on the northeast and east by Laos and Cambodia; and on the south by the Gulf of Thailand (the northwestern portion of the South China Sea), peninsular Malaysia, and the Andaman Sea.
With an area of 513,115 sq km and a population of about 65 million, the country is similar to France. Its distinctive shape is often compared to an elephant's head. This unusual shape means that Thailand is more than twice as long from north to south (1,770km) as it is wide from east to west (800km). The country as a whole pivots around the Gulf of Thailand. Thailand has a long and intricate coastline measuring 3,200 km.
Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country never to have been occupied by any European or other foreign power, except in war. The country was an absolute monarchy from 1782 until 1932, when a constitutional monarchy was established. Since then, Thailand has come under the rule of many governments, both civil and military. The country was known as Siam until 1939 (when it was renamed Thailand), and again for a few years in the late 1940s. In 1949 the name Thailand was adopted a second time.
Thai people form the large majority of Thailand’s population; they speak standard Thai, and most of them practice Theravada Buddhism. Other ethnic groups within the population include Chinese, Malays, and indigenous hill people.
Thailand is known for its highly refined classical music and dance and for a wide range of folk arts.Traditionally based on agriculture, Thailand’s economy began developing rapidly in the 1980s, but suffered from a severe recession in 1997. During the boom years, economic growth averaged more than 7% annually, one of the highest rates in the world. The crisis of 1997 wiped out some of the gains of the boom and forced major adjustments in Thai industry and economic policy. However, by 2003 Thailand’s per capita income reached $2,190, making it an upper-middle income developing economy. Thailand’s basic unit of currency is the baht, which now exchanges for about Bt38 to the US dollar and Bt46 to the euro.
Bangkok, located on the Chao Phraya river is Thailand’s capital and largest city, an administrative, economic, and cultural center, and a major commercial and transportation center of Southeast Asia. The Thai refer to Bangkok as Krung Thep, which means City of Angels. Europeans once called the city the Venice of the East because it had numerous canals, most of which have now been filled and made into roads.
Bangkok Metropolis, has an area of 1,569 sq km and extends for more than 32 km in all directions. In 2000, its population was estimated at 6.3 m, or 8.6 m with the surrounding provinces.
As Thailand’s main port, Bangkok has always been more cosmopolitan than other regions of the country. Thousands of Chinese immigrants came to Bangkok during the 19th century and until World War II but incentives and sanctions encouraged the rapid assimilation of the immigrants. Today the city’s population is overwhelmingly Thai, with significant minorities of Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Malays, Europeans, and Americans. In addition to Thai, English is widely employed in Bangkok. It is taught in secondary schools and in colleges and universities, and used extensively in the important tourism industry.
Bangkok suffers from many urban ills, like traffic congestion, crowded living conditions and chronic pollution. In recent years progress has been made: in 1999, Skytrain, a monorail system began operating on elevated rail lines, while, in 2004, the first line of a new subway system began running under central Bangkok.
Bangkok is a major tourist attraction, with the oldest quarters most widely visited. The royal Grand Palace, with its associated Wat Phra Kaeo (Emerald Buddha), is admired for its well-maintained 19th-century architecture. Nearby are many Buddhist temples (wat), including especially Wat Pho, home of a massive statue of the reclining Buddha. Also nearby is the enormous open field (Sanam Luang) where special royal ceremonies are held, including the cremations of royalty and the annual Ploughing Ceremony, which inaugurates the rice-planting season.
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