Thailand is surely one of the more colorful nations in Southeast Asia – their history, their culture, their food. It is one of the places we have both been looking forward to learning about and experiencing.
Thailand has a tremendously long history. Limited archeological evidence suggests that the Mekong River Valley and Khorat Plateau was inhabited 10,000 years ago by farmers and bronze workers. However, the events leading to Thailand developing in to a country probably began around 600 BC.
People from southern China – called the T’ai – settled in what is now Thailand around 600 BC. Indian traders soon arrived, and they introduced Hinduism which became the principle faith of the area. Chinese traders began arriving around 230 BC, and much of Thailand was incorporated in to the kingdom of Funan. (Funan means ‘king of the mountain’, and it referred to Mt. Meru – the home of the Hindu gods.) Funan grew to include parts of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It peaked as a nation around 500 AD, and then it began its decline. As Funan declined, the Kingdom of Khmer rose.
The Khmer were also Hindus at that time, and their regional power grew steadily. However, the Thais were also influenced by the Mon people of Burma who were Buddhist. The Mon dominated parts of western Thailand from the 3rd to 6th century, and Thailand experienced a gradual conversion to Buddhism during those years. The Khmer pushed the Mon back to Burma, but Buddhism remained. The Khmer ruled Thailand for another 500 years.
The first Thai kingdom emerged in the 13th century when several Thai principalities in the Mekong Valley united and took control of central Thailand from the Khmer. This kingdom – the Sukothai Kingdom – declared independence in 1238.
The Ayuthaya Kingdom emerged in the 14th century, and they expanded deep in to territory that was previously held by the Khmer. Ayuthaya became one of the greatest and wealthiest cities in Asia. Ayuthaya had an unbroken monarchical succession through 34 reigns over 400 years – King U Thong (r 1350 – 1369) through King Ekathat (r 1758 – 1767). The Burmese overran Ayuthaya in 1765, and they destroyed almost everything.
Following the fall of Ayuthaya, Bangkok became the seat of power in 1782 under the rule of Chao Phaya Chakri. Thailand assumed a new hereditary title system, and the newly crowned king became Rama I. The Chakri dynasty is still the ruling family of Thailand. The present king, Bhumibol Adulyadej was appointed Rama IX in 1946 after his brother, Rama VIII, was shot and killed.
Thailand’s history from the ascension of Rama I in 1782 to today – 2008 – has been neither peaceful nor orderly. Just since 1932, there have been 19 coup attempts, and ten have been successful. Following a successful coup, the constitution was often abolished and parliament dissolved. In 1997, parliament voted in a new constitution; it was the 16th since 1932.
During one of these constitutional suspensions, students in Bangkok protested and demanded that that the constitution be reinstated. The military brutally suppressed the demonstration. They killed 77 and wounded more than 800 students. The brutality had escalated to a point that the king stepped in and forced two Thai politicians to leave the country. Things were obviously out of control.
Because of its geographic location, Thailand became an unwilling participant in two 20th century wars. They took different sides in the wars – against the US in World War II and with the US in the Vietnam War – but their actions were somewhat similar in both. They did what they believed they needed to do to survive the war, and then they immediately expelled the warriors when the war ended.
WWII – Japanese forces attacked Thailand on December 8, 1941. Thailand quickly yielded, and they became a staging area for the campaign against Malaysia. In cooperation with the occupying Japanese forces, the Thai government made a declaration of war against the US in 1942. Sources disagree whether this was a forced declaration or the willing act of a puppet government. Regardless, that declaration was retracted when the puppet government was removed in July, 1944.
Vietnam War – Thailand had been receiving US financial aid ($2 billion) since 1952. In return, they permitted US bomber bases on Thai territory as the conflict in Vietnam escalated. Thailand even sent some troops to Vietnam; however, those troops were paid by the US government. In spring of 1975, when South Vietnam and Cambodia collapsed, Thailand made a rapid and drastic change in their diplomatic posture. Thailand insisted that all US military personnel – then numbering around 23,000 – leave Thailand by March, 1976.
Following the Vietnam War, refugees flooded Thailand in 1978 and 1979. Many refugees were from Vietnam and Laos; however, the majority were from Cambodia – on Thailand’s eastern border – escaping the Pol Pot regime.
The past decade has been a difficult time for Thailand. They have faced natural disasters, financial collapse, and political chaos.
2004 tsunami – On December 26, 2004, a large earthquake off the coast of Sumatra created a tsunami that devastated parts of Thailand. Six provinces on the Andaman coast reported 5,000 confirmed dead and another 3,000 missing. And the hardest hit areas were further east – the beaches of Khao Lak and the islands of Ko Phi Phi and Phuket. Although much has been rebuilt, the lost revenues from the tsunami have been estimated at 50 billion baht. Thailand has also experienced a drop in tourism since the tsunami; however, it is slowly rebuilding.
Regional problems – The bombings in Bali, starting in 2003, have had a negative effect on tourism throughout this part of Asia. So have health concerns related to the SARS epidemic and the current bird flu problem. So has the violence in the south of Thailand.
Violence in the south – The geographically isolated southern provinces – Yala, Narathiwat, and Patlani – have at least as much affinity with Malaysia as they do with Thailand. They are geographically close to Malaysia, and the population is predominantly Muslim. There have been separatist factions there for decades, and unrest has escalated in recent years.
In 2004, two police debacles resulted in the deaths of 190 Muslims. Separatist hostilities flared. Thaksin, the then-prime-minister, told the Muslim population that they should leave Thailand if they were unhappy with how they were treated (the “love it or leave it” attitude). The Muslim population has not left, but Thaskin is now a fugitive from justice and remains out of the country lest he be imprisoned for fraud convictions. There has been ongoing political chaos over the governments that have followed Thaksin, and at times it has appeared that it might degenerate in to civil war. Time will tell.
Thailand is recovering from the events of the last decade. And, with only a few exceptions, they seems to be looking forward. The world will be watching their political situation though.
Thailand is comprised of just less than 200,000 square miles – approximately the size of France. It occupies the western half of the Indochinese peninsula and the northern two-thirds of the Malay Peninsula. Its neighbors are Myanmar (Burma) to the north and west, Laos to the north and northeast, Cambodia to the east, and Malaysia to the south.
Bangkok is the capital of Thailand and its largest city. Nearly 10 million live in the metro area surrounding Bangkok.
The population of Thailand is approximately 65 million. Their ethnicity is 75% Thai, 14% Chinese, and 11% other. Their religions are 95% Buddhist, 4% Muslim, and 1% Christian, Hindu, and others. They have a 96% literacy rate. Thai is the national language; however, some English is spoken by many – particularly near the urban areas.
Thailand’s labor force is approximately 35 million. Fifty-four percent work in agriculture, 15% in industry, and 31% in services. Their natural resources include tin, rubber, natural gas, tungsten, tantalum, timber, lead, fish, gypsum, lignite, fluorite, and much arable land. Their main agricultural products are rice, cassava, rubber, corn, sugarcane, coconut, and soybeans. Their industries include tourism, textiles, agricultural processing, tobacco, cement, and light manufacturing.
Thailand had the strongest economy in the region for years. However, the economy collapsed under the weight of foreign debt in 1997. A chain reaction occurred and the Asian currency crisis resulted. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) offered $17 billion bailout to Thailand, but the offer required that Thailand accept the IMF restructuring guidelines. Thailand accepted. The decade since then has not been without controversy, but the economy has made a slow gradual recovery.
The Thai currency is the baht. The baht is currently equivalent to approximately three cents of US currency.
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, and its current is King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Rama IX is the longest reigning king of Thailand and in the world. He is very highly regarded by Thais, and his recent 80th birthday (December 10, 2007) was cause for great celebration.
Less highly regarded is the former Prime Minister – Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin is a billionaire telecommunications mogul from Chang Mai who was elected in January, 2001. His tenure in office was an ongoing personal and political scandal, and he was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006. He has since been convicted of corruption, and nearly half of his 76 billion THB assets have been seized by the Thai government. His wife (also convicted of corruption) divorced him, and he has been traveling the world avoiding extradition.
Thailand has experienced a series of political protests and demonstrations that have, at times, essentially paralyzed the nation. Anti-Thaksin protesters camped out in Bangkok for months without change, and they eventually took over Bangkok’s international airport. Although many were sympathetic to their cause, this action cost Thailand millions in revenue and further battered the tourism industry. Pro-Thaksin protesters took over parts of Bangkok and made extreme demands on the current government. This lengthy protest was occasionally violent with some deaths and hundreds of injuries. It is not possible to predict what will happen next. Only time will tell.
We first arrived in Thailand on December 3, 2007, with plans to stay for a year. In the southern hemisphere, our ‘down time’ was December through May. However, we have returned to the northern hemisphere where weather-determined ‘down time’ is June through November. So, by crossing the equator, we either had to keep sailing on without any ‘down time’, or take a full year off. We knew well before arriving that we would like to spend the year here. We had no idea that it would turn in to three years, which it has.
On our sail north in 2007, while in Singapore, we applied for ‘retirement visas’ which would allow us to stay in Thailand for a year as opposed to the 30-day tourist visa most get on arrival. It was a bit of a bureaucratic pain, and an expense, but we applied and got the visas. We were set.
We discussed this at length over a few days trying to decide what to do. We would have to travel to Bangkok to apply for another retirement visa, and we could not be sure we would get it. We had visions of the cruising season slipping by while we sat in a hotel in Bangkok waiting for some bureaucrat to further annoy us. We decided to spend our time cruising western Thailand then go back to Malaysia for our down time.
We spent a wonderful month sailing north on the west side of Thailand. When Bud’s visa was running out, he made a ‘visa run’ to Myanmar and got another 30 days on return. Now we had another month to make our way south to Langkawi, Malaysia. That would have to do. And it did.
After we cruised the west side of Thailand, we returned to Langkawi for six months. Then we returned to Thailand to do some substantial projects on the boat. We anticipated these projects would be completed by the end of the year. Hah!
Our projects were many. They included: painting the hull, painting decks, painting bottom, building hard bimini, reworking anchor rollers, galvanizing CQR anchor, installing staysail furling system, installing Sunbrella protection on two staysails, building full boat cover, building new mainsail ‘stack pack’ cover, servicing winches, replacing worn lines, installing autopilot on windvane, build antennae support structure, reroute various antennae, add step to transom, add motor lift, replace all saloon & aft cabin cushions, replace cockpit cushions, change hot water plumbing, rebuild refrigerator box, replace refrigeration unit, replace leaking rear seal on main engine, valve job on diesel generator, rebuild scuba compressor, rebuild transmission, repaint galley, rewire nav station, install two new solar panels, replumb galley & head, various canvas projects…
As time and jobs went on, we realized that we were not going to make it out this season as planned. We could have rushed things to completion, but we decided against it. We chose to finish our projects over a time that worked for us. That meant we would spend one more season in Southeast Asia. We enjoy this part of the world enough that we are not disappointed by the change of plans. This change will enable us to complete more boat projects and to do a bit more travel around Asia before heading west and north to the Mediterranean.
While our painting crew was working on Passage, we took a few weeks to travel around northern Thailand and the northern third of Laos. It was a great trip, and it helped us decide to linger here a bit longer. Come with us as we travel through northern Thailand and Laos by land – mostly.
Passage was launched on March 5, 2009 – more than three months late. Oh well…
When Passage was back in the water, we took a well-deserved break and went to Nepal for a few weeks. We returned to Thailand with another three month visa, but that visa expired, and we again went to Langkawi until December 7 when we checked back in to Thailand again. After a very short stay, we headed out for a month in India’s Andaman Islands.
We returned to Thailand on February 3 but stayed only a few weeks. Back to Langkawi for a few months. Then we returned to Thailand on June 20. We had had a close encounter with a reef in the Andaman Islands, and we wanted to repair the scratches and freshen our bottom paint before heading west, so we hauled out again at Boat Lagoon. But the big project was our rig – we replaced all our standing rigging and painted our mast. That was a very big job.
We stayed in Thailand until November. Nita’s brother, Tom, came to visit us again (he last visited when we were in Fiji), and he wanted to do some sailing. We also needed to do a shakedown cruise before heading offshore again. So we went to Langkawi and back in only two weeks’ time. We were in Phuket at the end of the year – getting ready to leave.
We checked out with the federalies on January 3, and we actually left the country on January 7. Thailand has been an incredible experience for us, and we leave with a bit of sadness. However, we also look forward to what comes next.
In addition to the travels discussed here, we have also made multiple ‘visa runs’ to Penang, Malaysia and Ranong, Myanmar. We danced with the immigration officials for more than three years, and we were not leading. We jumped the hoops and spent far too much time and effort dealing with visas. But this is the consequence of staying as long as we did. We did finally got another long-term visa that covered us until April 2011. That was more than we needed – as we left on January 7.
Come along as we sail between Langkawi and Thailand or sail between the Andaman Islands and Thailand
Or go to our destination pages for Langkawi or India’s Andaman Islands
Or sail with us from Thailand to Sri Lanka or jump ahead to Sri Lanka