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Art And Culture

From early civilisations that produced colourful rock paintings to the fabulously ornate Buddhist temples where woodcarvings, glass mosaics, inlays and murals are used to superb effect, Thai culture has a long history of artistic achievement. Today, avant-garde and neo-traditionalist paintings interpret Thailand’s complex cultural heritage in new and exciting ways, adding to the already incredible diversity of the Thai idiom. Thailand also enjoys a thriving film and literary industry, while performing arts such as the classic khon and lakhon are a part of everyday life.


The rich artistic heritage of Thailand is gaining better recognition both nationally and internationally as recent studies shed more light on the complex religious and cultural influences which have shaped its evolution.

Throughout the ages various artistic trends have been adopted and interpreted in a Thai idiom. An innovative spirit broke through during the Golden Age of the Sukhothai kingdom (13C-16C), and as the power of Ayutthaya (14C-18C) grew, its culture spread to neighbouring territories. The destruction of the old capitals of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya entailed the loss of innumerable works of art. Wooden structures have perished but extant monuments built of stone or brick and statues made of terracotta, stone, crystal, bronze, silver and gold which have escaped destruction give some idea of the artistic flowering of the period.

As Thailand becomes more prosperous, a growing interest among the people in their history and culture has prompted further research and a greater commitment to conservation of important monuments and works of art. Many known archaeological sites have not yet been investigated and significant discoveries are likely which may lead to new interpretations. Until recently the National Museum in Bangkok was the repository of the country’s art treasures but under a new policy regional museums – Ayutthaya, Ban Chiang, Chiang Saen, Lamphun, Lopburi, Nan, Nakhon Si Thammarat Sukhothai and Phimai among others – have been created to exhibit the art of particular regions.

Early Civilisations

Artefacts – pebble tools, flints, polished adzes, slate knives – from all over the country (Mae Hong Son, Kanchanaburi, Surat Thani) provide precious information about the slow evolution of the lifestyle of prehistoric people: from hunter- gatherers or search-and-kill nomadic groups to permanent settlers able to shape the environmental conditions to suit communal livelihood. The oldest artefacts found are chipped stone axes used as choppers dating back to before 5000 C.

Elaborate burial rituals developed as well as farming, animal husbandry and production of earthenware. Burial sites reveal that an advanced civilisation flourished at Ban Chiang and No Nok Tha ( c 5000 BC to 2C AD) in the northeast and produced incised, cord-marked and painted vessels of various types. The red-patterned designs are outstanding. The discovery of the world’s oldest socketed tool (WOST c 3500 BC) and fine ornaments provides evidence that bronze technology had also been mastered. A rare terracotta tripod dated c 2000 BC found at Ban Kao, Kanchanaburi, is probably a local imitation of a bronze original.

Rock paintings of figures, animals and designs abound in caves and rock shelters and are moving testimonies of the activities and rituals of prehistoric man.

Foreign Influences

From the beginning of the millennium Indian traders spread the culture of India, the birthplace of both Hinduism and Buddhism, throughout Southeast Asia; its influence in southern Thailand can be traced as far back as the 3C AD. Important finds were made at Takuapa and Amphoe Wieng Sa and Chaiya . Early statues (7C-9C) of the three supreme Hindu gods – namely Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma who assume the roles of both creators and destroyers – and the first representations of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas are in the Gupta and post-Gupta styles. The four-armed Vishnu is portrayed with his attributes – a conch, a disc, a club and a lotus – and wearing a tall mitre and a long robe (sampot) with a thick fold at the waist. The artistic styles (Amaravati, Anuradhapura) of southeastern India including Ceylon (Sri Lanka) were also determining influences. Early standing statues show the Buddha in the attitude of dispelling fear (abhaya mudra) or preaching (vitarka mudra), dressed in a pleated robe covering the left shoulder with a thick fold draped over the left arm. Shiva lingas representing the Hindu trinity, terracotta images and votive tablets have also been found on various sites.

Among important finds in Kanchanaburi which attest to the influence of other cultures are a bronze Roman lamp adorned with the face of the Greek god Silenus ( c 1C) probably brought to the area by Indian merchants.

Dvaravati Art

This refers to artistic forms dating back to the period from the 6C to the 11C and which are comparable to Gupta, post-Gupta and Pala art. Silver coins bearing a Sanskrit inscription refer to a Dvaravati kingdom situated in central Thailand and Lower Burma, whose people were probably of Mon origin.

Dvaravati art is associated with the culture of the Theravada Buddhist sect, as can be seen from its main expression in the forms of Buddha statues and in the early aniconic art objects, such as the Wheel of the Law (of Dharma) and the crouching deer, which together symbolise the birth of Buddhism, as well as sculptures relating the stories of the Buddha in his previous lives. Standing stone Buddha images present strong indigenous features : a broad square face, a flat nose, thick lips, prominent eyes, curved eyebrows joined over the bridge of the nose. Other characteristics are large curls, a conical top-knot (ushnisha), a transparent robe covering both shoulders and clinging to the body forming a U-shape at the hem, an undergarment often visible at the waist and at the lower edge. Imposing statues of the Buddha seated in “European” style with feet resting on a lotus base found at Nakhon Pathom are masterpieces.

Religious sanctuaries (chedis, viharas) were built of laterite or brick. Fine examples of intricately carved boundary stones (bai semas), bas-reliefs, stucco images, terracotta figurines and votive tablets have been found at major Dvaravati sites including the ancient site of Si Thep .

The regional museums of Nakhon Pathom, Ratchaburi, Prachinburi, Lamphun and Khon Kaen have particularly fine exhibits.

Haripunchai Style

According to the northern Lanna chronicles Theravada Buddhism and Dvaravati culture spread north to Lopburi and thence to Haripunchai in the 7C-8C. There are particularly fine statues of Buddha with strong features in the Dvaravati idiom exhibited in the museum at Lamphun. But in the 10C-12C when Haripunchai was at the peak of its glory, its sculpture and architecture – square chedi at Wat C­hamatewee (Wat Ku Kut) – suggest that its artistic style was more in line with the contemporaneous artistic form of Pagan (Burma). After Haripunchai fell to King Mengrai of Chiang Rai in 1281, its Buddhist art and culture served to underpin the foundation of Chiang Mai where the invading monarch established a new capital.

Art in the Southern Peninsula

In the 7C-13C Mahayana Buddhism was well established in the south which was ruled by a maritime power, the Srivijaya empire which probably had its capital at Palambang in Sumatra. Srivijaya art was heavily influenced by the Gupta, post-Gupta and Pala-Sena styles. An 8C stone figure of the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and an ornate bronze Avalokitesvara (8C-9C) found at Chaiya (in National Museum, BANGKOK) are admirable. The site of Sathing Phra has also yielded many Srivijayan bronzes. Chaiya preserves the best examples of Srivijaya architecture. Wat Kaeo and Wat Phra Boromathat are the most important monuments. The original chedi (Phra Boromathat) at Nakhon Si Thammarat was probably in a similar style.

The Khmer Legacy

Khmer art found in Thailand is usually described as Lopburi art as Lopburi became the Khmer administrative and cultural centre. From the 7C to the 13C, Khmer art and architecture had a profound impact on the cultures of both the kingdoms of Dvaravati and Srivijaya.

Khmer prasats or ancient sanctuary-towers found in the northeast date back to the 7C-8C and were constructed in accordance with both Hinduist beliefs and the Mahayana Buddhist faith which superseded Hinduism. Religious sanctuaries built of different materials can be traced to different periods: bricks were used in the earlier period, followed by stone and laterite at later dates. The Khmer monuments of Lopburi range from different p­eriods. Prasat Phanom Wan a (Nakhon Ratchasima), Prasat Muang Tham (Buriram) and Prasat Hin Phanom R­ung (10C-13C) rank among the most renowned Khmer monuments, while Prasat Hin Phimai deemed to be the most complete example of a Khmer sanctuary pre-dates Angkor Wat. The carved decoration of these sanctuaries is outstanding. Also of interest are the numerous hospitals or rest-houses built by Jayavarman VII all over the northeast and as far north as Laos.

Outstanding sculptures, some of bronze but mostly made of sandstone, include a remarkable bust of Uma ( c early 7C), a majestic statue of J­ayavarman VII , probably a portrait of the monarch. Characteristics of the sandstone Lopburi Buddhas are a flat square face, a band outlining the hairline, eyebrows in a straight line, a protuberance on the crown of the head – sometimes modified into three rows of lotus petals topped by a lotus bud – signifying enlightenment. The robe hangs over the left shoulder and lies in a straight line at the navel. The crowned Buddha images in regal attire raised on the coils of the Naga king and sheltered by its seven-headed hood were an innovation symbolising the Khmer cult of the god-king (deva raja). Bronze vessels and glazed ceramics known as “Khmer jars” usually in human and animal shapes have also been found in large numbers.

The Lanna Kingdom (11C to early 18C)

The principalities of northern Thailand which made up the Lanna Kingdom under King Mengrai developed distinctive artistic styles.

The early style is named after the ancient site of Chiang Saen (11C-13C) where were discovered Buddha images (12C) of great beauty. Typical features are a strong body, round face, prominent chin, arched eyebrows, large curls crowned by a lotus bud, the fold of the robe terminating in a wavy pattern at the left shoulder. The base of the statues is decorated with lotus petals. The second style, known as late-Chiang Saen or Chiang Mai, reveals the influence of Sukhothai – oval face, slender body, the fold of the robe descending to the waist – and later of Ayutthaya, late-Burmese and Lao art. Many statues were made of crystal and semi-precious stones. Some experts surmise that the Emerald Buddha, the most precious statue in Thailand which was found in Chiang Rai, is in the late-Chiang Saen style although others favour the schools of Ceylon or India. A secondary style flourished at Phayao in the 15C-16C although this is now disputed.

Masterpieces of Lanna architecture abound besides Wat Pa Sak , a unique structure combining Dvaravati, Burmese and Sukhothai influences, the chedi of Wat Chet Yot based on the Bodh Gaya shrine in India, and Wat Chedi Liem inspired from Wat Chamatewee (Wat Ku Kut) .

The founding of Chiang Mai in the 13C and the celebration of the 2000th anniversary of Buddhism in the 15C led to the building of admirable sanctuaries, namely Wat Phra Sing Luang , Wat Chedi Luang , Wat Chiang Man , and Wat Suan Dok . The stepped roof structure, elaborate porches with naga balustrades, octagonal chedis, intricate carving and stucco decorations are noteworthy. The site of Wat Phra That Lampang Luang is the best extant example of a fortified settlement (wiang) surrounded by earthen ramparts.

There are also remarkable Burmese-style temples with their distinctive plan and roof line and delicate fretwork. They are the legacy of Shan and Burmese merchants engaged in the logging industry and are reminders of the long historical links which existed between Lanna and Burma.

The Glory of Sukhothai (late 13C – early 15C)

In the 13C, the emergence of the Sukhothai kingdom, which embraced Theravada Buddhism, gave rise to original forms of artistic expression in order to assert its cultural identity after ending the dominance of the Khmers who practised Mahayana Buddhism.

Sukhothai architecture is celebrated for a unique style of chedis with a lotus-bud crown (Wat Phra Si Mahathat, Wat Traphang Ngoen, Sukhothai; Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo, Si Satchanalai) which evolved from the Khmer and Burmese (Pagan) art forms it had inherited. The Khmer prang was also refined as at Wat Si Sawai (Sukhothai). Sinhalese influences are evident in the harmonious bell-shaped chedi (Wat Phra Si Mahathat, Wat Sa Sri, Sukhothai) with a square base often highlighted by stucco elephant buttresses (Wat Chang Lom, Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai; Wat Chang Rob, Kamphaeng Phet). A further development derived from the Lanna style consists of a stupa with a square redented base above which rise a square main body pierced with niches housing standing Buddha images and superimposed bell-shapes crowned by a ringed finial. There are examples of these chedis at Wat Phra Si Mahathat (Sukhothai) and at Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo, Si Satchanalai). Large Buddha images and footprints are enshrined in square mondops with thick walls (Wat Phra Si Mahathat, Wat Si Chum, Sukhothai; Wat Phra Si Iriyabot, Kamphaeng Phet), derived from the Sanskrit word ‘mandapa’ although this describes an open hall or pavilion in Indian architecture.

Sukhothai statues of the Buddha in four postures – seated, reclining, standing and walking – are notable for their elegant beauty reflecting religious fervour and quietude in accord with Theravada Buddhism, hence the Sinhalese influence. Characteristics include an oval face, hooked nose, arched eyebrows, small curls, a serene smiling expression, broad shoulders and slim waist. The head is crowned by a tall flame motif, and the flap of the robe is draped over the left shoulder and ends in a wavy pattern at the waist. Phra Phuttha Sihing (Phra Thinang Phutthaisawan, Bangkok), Phra Phuttha Chinasi and Phra Phuttha Sassada (Wat Boworniwet, Bangkok) are among the most remarkable examples. An original feature is the flame halo framing the venerated Phra Phuttha Chinarat (Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat, Phitsanulok) which boasts a rounder face, a stouter body and fingers of equal length. The last image has inspired many artists and several versions are enshrined in sanctuaries all over the country.

The sublime walking Buddha – portrayed in the round and in bronze marks the peak of Sukhothai artistry and is probably based on stucco reliefs (Wat Phra Phai Luang, Wat Traphang Thong Lang – Sukhothai; Wat Si Iriyabot – Kamphaeng Phet). The features and figure conform to the description of the Buddha’s appearance in Pali texts. The smooth flowing lines and the flexed posture of the idealised figure are remarkable.

Buddha footprints in stone and bronze which symbolise the presence of the master and reproduce that on Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka gained popularity in the reign of King Lithai ( c 1347-68).

Rare slate engravings incised with scenes from the Jataka (the early lives of the Buddha) from Wat Si Chum attest to the mastery of Sukhothai craftsmen.

The admirable images of Hindu gods, Shiva and Vishnu (BANGKOK, National Museum), cast in the Sukhothai period must have been inspired by a need for power consolidation and the belief in agricultural fertility associated with Hinduism.

Craftsmen who learned their trade from Chinese masters produced glazed ceramics – plain brown, white, celadon or with a painted design – known as Sangkalok ware at large kiln sites in Si Satchanalai and Sukhothai. Vessels and decorative pottery in animal and human shapes were exported far and wide, and artefacts recovered from sunken ships in the Gulf of Thailand and off the coast of Indonesia and The Philippines provide evidence of this important trading activity.

The Art of Ayutthaya (1350 to 1767)

Glowing contemporary descriptions by European visitors give only an inkling of the glory of Ayutthaya which boasted numerous glittering temples and magnificent palaces. Ayutthaya identified closely with artistic and cultural traditions inherited from Khmer civilisation and as its power grew its sovereigns promoted the notion of the divine king and became remote figures. The splendour and importance of temple buildings were testimonies of royal power.

The corn-cob multi-faceted prang or tower chedi (Wat Ratchaburana) evolved from the prasat or sanctuary-tower in Khmer architecture. The Sukhothai bell-shaped chedi remained a popular structure with pillars added at the base of the ringed finial, although the bell-shape later became smaller in size and rested on a taller base. Redented chedis (Wat Phu Khao Thong) with recessed, indented corners, and with faceted bell-shaped relic chambers marked a new trend. Viharas have typical concave bases, slit windows and pillars topped with lotus capitals.

The U-Thong style of sculpture which pre-dates the founding af Ayutthaya and developed in the central plain, was probably named after U-Thong in the province of Suphan Buri. King U-Thong (Ramathibodi I) moved his subjects from there to the site of Ayutthaya. Buddha images which reflect indigenous Buddhist beliefs and patterns reminiscent of Khmer influence belong to the first period (U-Thong A). There was a relatively rapid evolution just prior to the rise of Ayutthaya when the influence of Sukhothai Buddhist sculpture was evident.

The Sukhothai influence prevailed until an idiom distinct to the Ayutthaya period was devised. This, however, lacked verve and fluency and produced images with a severe expression. In the 16C when Cambodia came under Ayutthaya sovereignty, Khmer art provided renewed inspiration to the artists who carved statues from sandstone with lines emphasising the lips and eyes and with the tracing of a delicate moustache.

Ayutthaya’s association with Chiang Mai explains the popularity of crowned Buddha images which had appeared in the 15C. Initially these images were modestly decorated but later Buddhas in royal apparel came to reflect the grandeur of the Ayutthaya kings. Massive statues also conveyed the importance of the realm. Figures of disciples were introduced as well as majestic statues of Hindu deities – Shiva – in a style similar to the Khmer-Bayon style (13C).

A large treasure including regalia, Buddha images and votive tablets recovered from the crypt of Wat Ratchaburana illustrates the exquisite artistry of the master-craftsmen.

Mural paintings found in the crypt of Wat Ratchaburana are rare survivals from the sack of the town by the Burmese in 1767. The style is reminiscent of Sukhothai art and shows Chinese craftsmanship. Other fine examples may be admired at Wat Yai Suwannaram and Wat Ko Kaeo Sutharam in Phetchaburi. The scenes include floral motifs and mythical animals painted in muted shades – white, yellow, rust, red – against a cream background. Gold leaf came into use at a later stage.

Other art objects typical of the Ayutthaya period include stuccoes, carved door panels, and especially the door panels inlaid with mother-of-pearl, scripture cabinets and boxes holding sacred manuscripts decorated with delicate paintings in gold on black lacquer.

Isan Art

The northeast retains a Lao heritage besides its magnificent Khmer temples. The harmonious Lao that (stupa) – Wat Phra That Si Song Rak ; Phra That Phanom, Phra That Tha U-Then, Phra That Renu Nakhon ; simple sim (ubosot) – Phra That Kham Khen ; Wat Suwannawas – often decorated with a sun-burst motif, distinctive Buddha images with oval faces , and intricate wood carving are worthy of interest.

The Early Rattanakosin (Bangkok) Period

After the fall of Ayutthaya (1767) King Taksin founded a new capital of the Siamese kingdom in Thonburi. In 1782 the centre of power moved to Bangkok under King Rama I of the Chakri dynasty. The architectural styles of the new capital city were in large part inherited from the former kingdom. Religious architectural achievements included the renowned Wat Phra Kaeo , Wat Po , Wat Suthat and Wat A­run among others. Buddha images were collected from the ruined former capital and placed in the temples of the new capital to provide a sense of continuity. The new artistic patterns and designs were even more rigorous than the Ayutthaya models and are considered on the whole to be derivative and less successful.

King Rama III’s reign (1824-51) marked the peak of the new kingdom. Crowned Buddha images with elaborate designs remained popular and reflected Bangkok’s economic and artistic progress. Traditional Buddha statues, however, were produced in large numbers. Chinese artistic influence was evident during this reign as a result of the large volume of trade with China providing the country with huge benefits. Chinese-style paintings were commonly seen along with Thai traditional paintings.

Mural paintings which illustrate the story of Buddhism follow a set pattern which can be easily read by worshippers. The side walls of the ubosot are divided into two registers. Celestial beings worshipping the principal Buddha image appear on the upper register, and scenes from the life of the Buddha or from his previous lives (Jataka) are depicted in the lower section. Buddhist cosmology – The Three Worlds (Traiphum) : heaven, earth and hell – is illustrated on the west wall, and the Victory of the Buddha over Mara (the force of evil) on the east wall. Scenes are contained within zigzag lines, and entertaining vignettes of everyday life, animals, plants fill the remaining space. The characters show no expression, and emotions are conveyed by conventional gestures and postures which survive in classical dance. Foreign themes are introduced but are treated in traditional style. The artists use simple lines and large expanses of dark colours with no shading or perspective. The best examples are in Wat Phra Kaeo, Phra Thinang Phuttaisawan and the temples of Thonburi. The Ramakien (the Thai version of the Hindu epic The Ramayana – The Story of Rama, King of Ayodhaya) is depicted on the walls of the galleried cloister of Wat Phra Kaeo.

The decorative arts flourished: ivory carvings, lacquer ware, mother-of-pearl inlay and niello ware. Multi-coloured porcelain known as Bencharong is renowned.

Contemporary Art

As the country opened once again to Western civilisation in the late 19C, Thai art was beginning to free itself from the religious frame of reference. The expansion of the capital led to the building of mansions in a composite style combining neo-Classical and neo-Baroque with traditional Thai elements. Wat Benchamabopit (Marble Temple), with its original plan, use of polychrome marble and stained glass, set new standards and has been reproduced throughout the land. Artists learnt the technique of perspective, and mural paintings became more vivid and included candid scenes and depictions of foreigners which reveal contemporary perceptions, as at Wat Boworniwet . The artist Khrua in Khong is the celebrated master of the period.

In recent years new trends have emerged which augur well for the flowering of the arts in Thailand. A modern architectural idiom featuring pure lines and sobriety draws inspiration from the past ( u­bosot of Wat Si Khom Kham, Phayao; Wat Sala Loi, Nakhon Ratchasima; Wat Phra Dhammakaya, Pathum Thani, u­bosot of Wat Phra Kaeo, Chiang Rai). The mural paintings commissioned from modern artists break new ground . As the population becomes more prosperous and better educated, interest in the arts and in the country’s heritage continues to grow, and art faculties gain new adherents who will pursue their quest with increased enthusiasm.

The Thai Buddhist Tradition

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism is the predominant form of Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia. It is the state religion in Thailand, where more than 90% of the population follow this tradition. Theravada, which means “Way of the Elders”, spread south and southeastwards from India during the reign of the great emperor Ashoka (3C BC). Sometimes referred to as the Pali School (because of the Pali language of its scriptures), or Hinayana meaning “Little Vehicle” (which has a derogatory connotation), it is widely regarded as the most conservative and orthodox of Buddhist traditions which has managed best historically to preserve the Gautama Buddha’s teachings.

This form of Buddhism differs from Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism by placing emphasis on: the historical Gautama Buddha as the single most important source of knowledge (as opposed to multiple Buddhas), the Buddha as a saint (rather than as a saviour), emancipation by self-effort (less by grace), the goal to become an arahant who emphasises attainment of wisdom and the termination of rebirths (instead of a bodhisattva who emphasises compassion and who postpones termination of rebirths).

The Buddha

Buddha means “awakened” or “enlightened one”. The historical Siddhartha Gautama was known as Buddha by his disciples in acknowledgement of his superior spiritual achievement and his release from the cycle of existence. He is one of a range of named Buddhas in this world-system; prior to him there was Kassapa Buddha, and the next Buddha will be Maitreya Buddha. Buddhas mature by attaining perfections (parami). Thus, in a previous life as the hermit Sumedha, Gautama took the vow to become a Buddha in the presence of a previous Buddha, namely Dipankara, and it is through his persistent efforts across lives that he attained the qualities necessary to become a Buddha. The core elements of his teachings are almost entirely practical instructions for living. Apart from his life as the Buddha, no less than 547 lives are attributed to him in the Jatakas (stories of his previous lives); the most important of these is his life as Vessantara, the penultimate life prior to becoming the Buddha during which, as a prince, he perfects generosity by giving away the kingdom’s wealth including the white elephant.

Early Life

Born at Kapilavastu (Rummindei in present-day Nepal), Gautama Buddha died at Kusinagara (Kasia in present-day India). Though there are various competing chronologies as to when he lived (ranging from 600 to 400 BC), according to Thai chronology he died (attained nirvana ) in 543 BC. His life is punctuated by episodes commemorated in Thai literature, calendrical ritual, iconography and art.

His birth into a royal family as Siddhartha was accompanied by a prophecy that he would become either a universal Buddha or a universal king. He married at the age of 16 and, though his father did his utmost to have him grow up to be a universal king by making life pleasurable for him, he could not prevent Siddhartha, during his trips into the pleasure gardens, from seeing four omens – the old, the ill, the dead, and the monk. The first three omens made him question existence, and the last motivated him to accomplish the great renunciation; he left the palace at the age of 29 and became an ascetic in order to understand the nature of existence.

The Middle Way

He visited many teachers and practised various kinds of yoga and asceticism, including starvation. His ability to attain to the highest jhanas is represented in the dhyanamudra, in which he is seated in meditation with hands folded palm up in his lap.

However, he finally decided that he should practise the Middle Way in which he neither deprived his senses fully, nor indulged himself. After 49 days in contemplation, and subject to attacks and temptations by Mara, the Evil One, he accomplished the great enlightenment under the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya at the age of 35. Though attained by his own efforts, this episode is often depicted as the Earth Goddess rescuing him from Mara by wringing her hair and causing a flood in witness to the Buddha’s great merit (after every merit ceremony a water libation is performed which saturates her hair). This episode is depicted as the Buddha seated in the b­humisparsa-mudra position calling the earth to witness with one hand (mostly the right hand) touching the earth.

He preached his First Sermon to his first five disciples in which he characterised the nature of reality (dhamma) as a wheel; this sermon is therefore known as “the wheel of the law” (d­harmachakra). This is commonly represented by a Buddha with index finger and thumb holding the middle finger of the other hand. He established the monastic order (sangha), and spent the rest of his life teaching his disciples and giving sermons through which he built up a large following.

He entered into parinirvana (a state beyond sentient existence) at the age of 80 after which his relics were distributed to various Buddhist kingdoms. This is commonly represented by a r­eclining Buddha. Buddhism spread after it was patronised by powerful rulers who extended its reach beyond India. At the Third Council in the 3C BC the Emperor Ashoka sent missionaries to outlying areas.

The Tripitaka

The Theravada Buddhist canonical texts alone are estimated at about 13 times the size of the Bible. Initially systematised during the third council held during Ashoka’s reign ( c 272-232 BC), these were orally transmitted until they were written down in Ceylon in the first century AD. The canon comprises the Three Baskets (Tripitaka) : the code of discipline of the monastic order (Vinaya), the discourses and sermons of the Buddha (Sutta), and Buddhist philosophy (Abhidhamma). Several councils have been held to ensure the accuracy of the texts transmitted, but not all Buddhists recognise all of these.

The Buddha’s Teachings

Emphasis is neither on a godly figure nor on doctrine, but on one’s own liberation through correct personal practice. The core elements of his teachings are mostly practical, which is why the correct way of treading the Buddhist path is sometimes characterised as orthopraxy (rightness of action) rather than orthodoxy.

The Four Noble Truths

Life is suffering (dukkha), suffering is caused by desire (samudaya), to uproot suffering is to uproot desire (nirodha), suffering may be ended by following the Noble Eightfold Path (magga).

The Noble Eightfold Path

Right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. These are often summed up as comprising charity (dana), morality (sila) and mental culture (bhavana).

Five Precepts

The minimum everyday moral code of conduct for the laity includes prohibitions against killing, stealing, lying, indulging in illicit sexual intercourse and getting drunk. Higher precepts may be adopted on special festive days or by ordaining and following the monastic code of conduct.

The Three Jewels (Triratana)

The Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha – are the main focus of worship.

Other Systems

Buddhist monks do not provide support for the everyday material needs of the laity. There is therefore space in Thai life for other systems more closely geared to taking charge of such needs.


Historically Brahmins have played a major role in maintaining the ritual purity of the king and in overseeing court and wedding ceremonial. Brahmins are still retained by the king and continue to have a reputation as the best ritual specialists for worldly ends.

Spirits – Buddhism does not deny the existence of either spirits (phi) or more highly placed deities (deva), and Buddhists observe an etiquette of behaviour towards spirits which ranges from acknowledgement to stronger forms of interaction. Their existence is acknowledged as standard by sending loving-kindness (metta) to all life in the world during the water libation ceremony, after offerings have been made to the monastic order. However, stronger forms of interaction include propitiation to prevent malice. Most homes, schools, offices and villages have shrines dedicated to guardian spirits (chao) which look like miniature houses on stilts.

Some practices go beyond propitiation and involve cults of mediums (khon song) and sorcerers (mae mod) which engage spirits with greater intensity. Many Thais regularly propitiate spirits in order to attain mundane goals in this world such as passing an exam or clinching a business deal. One of the most popular shrines in Bangkok is the Erawan shrine dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma at the Grand Hyatt-Erawan Hotel. It was erected by the owners after workers had suffered accidents.


Astrologers are commonly consulted in Thailand. Though astrological skills are associated with Brahmanism, it is practised by non-Brahmins also. Monks too are known to use astrology.

The Thai Sangha and the King

The first duty of the king is charity, i.e. to be a righteous ruler and, as a buddha-to-be, to protect Buddhism and be a patron to the monastic order. Historians often see the structure of the sangha as responding to the measures of kings. Unlike the other Theravada Buddhist countries, where the link between king and sangha was broken, Thailand has never been colonised and the sangha has continued to be patronised by royalty.

In the past, weak kings had neither the means nor the desire to structure the monastic order. On the other hand, when strong kings appeared the sangha attained a more structured form. This happened under King Mongkut (Rama IV r 1851-1868), who, having been himself a monk for 27 years, founded the reformist Dhammayutika branch of the order which put greater emphasis on meditation and learning, and which began to operate alongside the Mahanikay Group, which had a closer involvement with the laity. He centralised the order and institutionalised strong links with the state. After three Sangha Acts, in particular the acts of 1902 and 1962, the sangha was left more centralised than ever before. Today success in the Buddhist order is measured by success in the centrally administered examination system. Also, ordination may not take place and monasteries may not be founded without permission from the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and civil authorities have the power to unfrock monks.

Buddhist Cosmology and Symbols

Buddhist cosmology posits innumerable world-systems, each with its own characteristics. Each has its own sun and moon, and its own earth with continents and oceans and with a central mountain (Mount Meru) which bridges heavens and hells. These are periodically destroyed in long cosmic cycles (kalpa). The point about Buddhist cosmology is not that Buddhists believe that it exists in physical reality. However, it does form the backdrop for understanding Buddhist teachings on the nature of cause and effect and on the ethics of behaviour in an unlimited range of manifestations of life. Such cosmological ideas are implicated in architecture, in particular that of pagodas, and in the organisation of kingship.


Each world-system has 31 planes of existence through which life transmigrates with infinite rebirths. These planes of existence are divided into three. In the world of desire (kama loka) rebirths take place of animals, ghosts, humans and some deities, who feel pleasure and pain, and who have form and sensual desire. In the world of form (rupa loka) are to be found the 17 Brahman gods who have a subtle form and who, detached from sense-pleasure, experience the joy of four meditative absorptions. The formless world (arupa loka) has the higher gods who have no form and exist in pure mental state and contemplate infinity of space, of consciousness, of nothingness and the summit of existence.

The station of one’s rebirth depends on the consequences of one’s actions (dharma): how one behaved in past lives has contributed to one’s current make-up, and how one behaves today will have consequences for one’s future state. The realms of the deities are pleasurable, and the lower realms are full of pain. However, only the human realm – which partakes of both pleasure and pain – permits full realisation of nirvana and of Buddhahood.

Ordination and Monastic Life

The monastic order (sangha) was founded to realise and preserve the Buddhist teachings. Monks have no particular duty to the laity and do not preside over life-cycle rituals. Nevertheless, the monastery has historically served as more than just a religious centre. Until state schools were set up it served as the educational infrastructure ranging from primary school to university and it was the recruiting ground for the king’s ministers and servants. It continues to serve as a community resource in other ways. Monasteries often include pavilions (sala) where laity may meet in large assemblies, and monasteries may have motorised water pumps and deep water wells from which villagers benefit. Furthermore, it is through monastic networks that communities are helped in bridging links with provincial and national capitals outside their locality.

There are approximately 28 000 monasteries (wat) in Thailand inhabited, depending on the period in the year, by as many as 200 000 monks and 100 000 novices and temple boys (dek wat) at any one time. Unlike monks in the Christian tradition, entry into the monastic order is not usually permanent but temporary, ranging from a few days to the rainy season (phansa) lasting from June to October. Annually during the rainy season as many as 1.5% of the male population will ordain temporarily, swelling the monastic population in the country by as much as 25-40%.

Meditation Temples

Buddhist monasteries are often classified according to whether they focus on Buddhist practice (patipatti) or scriptural learning (pariyatti), whether their vocation is one of insight contemplation (vipassana-dhura) or book learning (gantha-dhura). This is often linked to village monasteries (gamavasin) as opposed to forest monasteries (arannavasin). Generally, it is adherents to the latter who capture the imagination of Buddhists and who, renowned for their magical powers, provide the reformist element in the monastic order.

These reformers have historically come from northeast Thailand and include the famous forest monk Phra Achan Mun (1870-1949) who became a meditation teacher. His pupils include Achan Cha , whose monastery in Ubon Ratchatani attracted many foreign students of meditation. Buddhadasa (1906-93) was the most famous contemporary forest monk who had a great following in Thai intellectual circles, and whose students continue to be a reformist influence in Thailand. His monastery Wat Suan Mokkha Phalaram still serves as an international meditation centre approximately four kilometres from Chaiya. Adherents to the forest tradition have been major critics of economic and social development and have spoken out against destruction of the forest by developers. Some have even gone as far as ordaining trees with monastic robes to protect them from being cut down.

Monastic Rules

In the monastery seniority is measured not by absolute age but by the level of ordination and the number of rainy seasons in the order. Temple boys (dek wat) are unordained and learn rudimentary reading and writing while attending to the monks. Novices are most junior ordinands who keep a limited set of 70 Vinaya precepts. Monks are fully ordained from age 20 upwards and their life involves observance of an intricate set of 227 Vinaya rules of conduct, which strongly forbid sexual relations, stealing, homicide and claiming arahantship.

There is no concept such as church or parish in Buddhism, which would bind monks and laity into a single community. Monks have no compulsory duties towards the laity. However, as they are not allowed to make their living from a trade or to prepare their own food, they are dependent on the laity for all their requisites. In return for this support they perform limited ceremonies, such as giving sermons, reciting and chanting at events such as funerals, housewarming ceremonies, national holidays, and other occasions.


Ordination into the order is one of the principal mechanisms for the transmission of Buddhist values and is considered highly meritorious for parents and for the ordinand. Few ordain permanently; those who do mostly come from a rural background. However, most men, in the course of their lives, will ordain for short periods of time often for personal reasons, usually when they want to purify themselves or to alleviate some personal suffering, but also to make merit for dead relatives. Leave of absence is normally granted from work for ordination. The ordination ceremony is traditionally elaborate including long festivities; however, it is sometimes also relatively simple with little ceremonial except the required question-answer sessions with monks at the ordination hall and shaving of the head.

Buddhist Temples and Relics

The earliest Buddhist monuments were stupas, funeral mounds which contained the remains of kings and great men, including the Buddha and his disciples. Such stupas today represent the Buddha’s death, but also are the image of the dynamic creation of the universe. As they were built mostly by kings, they are supernatural centres of the kingdom and legitimate royalty as an agent in maintaining the universe.

Everyday Religious Life


Merit-making through charity (dana) is the most pervasive element in everyday life. It is thought to have the most immediate effect on one’s future rebirth. This includes offerings of flowers and food early in the mornings to monks and to the Buddha, and distribution of merit (bun) attained to all sentient beings.

The most highly regarded merit-making activities are ordered approximately as follows: becoming a monk; building an entire monastery; having one’s son ordained; visiting Buddhist shrines; contributing to the repair funds of a shrine; providing the sangha with sustenance; becoming a novice; attending duty days and observing the eight precepts; observing the five precepts at all times.


Over the last few decades the popularity of meditation has greatly increased among the Thai Buddhist laity. This may be broadly classified into:

– concentration meditation (samatha), which focuses on attaining mastery and control over the body and on the acquisition of power. In the Thammakai movement a variant of this is practised.

– insight contemplation (vipassana), which focuses on the impermanence and insubstantiality of existence and the attainment of purity and wisdom. This technique has been influenced by the Burmese traditions, in particular by those of the Mahasi Sayadaw, whose student Achan Thong set up a main centre at Wat Rampung in Chiang Mai which is today the headquarters of several dozen centres spread across the country.


It is striking how many people wear amulets in Thailand. Depicting the Buddha, the king or revered monks, and blessed by monks, these are worn to protect against disease and accidents.

Other Religions

Mahayana Buddhism

The Chinese have been in Thailand predominantly as traders since at least the 15C. Their population is estimated at 12%. However, they have intermarried to such an extent that most Thai have some Chinese blood, and many have adopted the Theravada way of life. Their presence is strongest in the urban areas where their Mahayana temples are located, and their belief system is a mixture of Mahayana Buddhism, C­onfucian e­thics, veneration of ancestors and T­aoist supernaturalism.


The majority of the two million Thai Muslims living in the southern provinces of Thailand are of Sunni background, though some belong to the Shiite sect.


The tribal peoples numbering approximately 500 000 are often designated as “animist”, meaning that they adhere to no universal religion but practise l­ocalised spirit cults.


Christians have not been successful in converting Buddhists in Thailand for the most part, though they have had some success in the tribal regions. Though there are at most 200 000 Christians in Thailand today, Christian priests have historically played a major role in making the Thai aware of Western values and in mediating between the Thai and foreigners.


Minority religions include Hinduism and Sikhism.

Language and Literature

Thai, also known as Siamese, belongs to the Sino-Tibetan group of languages. Tonal, monosyllabic and uninflected, it includes many words from Pali and Sanskrit to which it is closely related. Differentiating high, middle, low, rising and falling tones is crucial to meaning. Thus mai mai mai mai mai, pronounced in the correct manner, means “New wood doesn’t burn does it?” Vocabulary tends towards the simplistic. Foreign people when angry have chai ron (hot heart). By contrast the Thai people tend towards chai yen (a cool heart).

Grammatically Thai is considerably easier than European languages. Tenses are indicated by auxiliaries used before the verb, and there are no prefixes, plurals or verb conjugations.

Each of Thailand’s major regions has its own dialect, often spoken instead of the national language. Khmer may also be used and in some dialects, seven tones are used to differentiate meaning.

Several speech levels are used in spoken Thai depending on age, sex and various social factors. A special language based on Sanskrit, Pali and Khmer is used to address royalty.


The people had an oral tradition until the 13C when King Ram Kamhaeng of Sukhothai devised a Thai script based on Sanskrit and using Khmer characters. It consists of symbols for 44 consonants and 32 vowels, of which 14 are simple vowels and the rest diphthongs. Words, often freely borrowed from other languages, are written from left to right without spaces.

A stone inscription (1283 – in National Museum, BANGKOK ) by King Ram Kamhaeng is the earliest written evidence. The Suphasit Phra Ruang (Maxims of King Ruang) paints a picture of a prosperous kingdom ruled by a just and benign monarch. The aristocracy and the monks were instructed in the art of writing but original manuscripts inscribed on palm leaves have perished. Buddhist texts in prose or verse that survive are copies of copies. The Traiphum Phra Ruang (The Three Worlds of King Ruang), an important work on Buddhist cosmology dealing with the three Buddhist realms – heaven, earth and hell – was probably written by King Li Thai (1347-74).

The Hindu epic, the Ramayana, inspired a seminal work, The Ramakien, in which the odyssey of Rama, the King of Ayodhya, is transposed into a Thai context. The influence of this classic tale is evident from the name adopted by the new kingdom which rose to power in the mid-14C. Early Thai versions of the Ramayana were lost when the Burmese ransacked Ayutthaya in 1767. The earliest surviving interpretation is by King Taksin. A very fine later version is deemed to be the work of King Rama I.

The arts flourished during the Ayutthaya period and new verse forms – chan, kap, khlong, klon, rai – evolved. Long narrative poems known as nirat which were popular in the late 17C sing the pain of absence or separation. Rama II, a talented sovereign versed in the arts, wrote poetry and staged a theatrical presentation of Inao, a Javanese tale. The 18C-19C, however, are marked by a versatile poet, Sunthorn Phu (1786-1855), who composed romantic poems. Phra Aphaimani and Khun Chang Khun Phaen rank among his masterpieces; the latter conveys a picture of life in the early 19C.

20C works are characterised by the influence of western literature. Rama VI (1910-25) is the author of translations and adaptations of the dramatic works of Shakespeare. The clash of Thai and Western cultures and the political upheavals of the 1930s and the 1950s to the present day have inspired radical novelists. Love, romance and dreams are, however, the common themes of popular literature. The most successful works are Si Phaen Din (The four reigns) and Phai Daeng (Red Bamboo) by Mom Kukrit Pramoj. Many Thai novels have been translated into English.

Comics and romantic stories in pictures are in great demand. Several newspapers are published including the English-language Bangkok Times, Bangkok Post and The Nation.

Cultural and Leisure Pursuits

The rich culture of Thailand is celebrated with great pride throughout the land. The pomp of traditional ceremonial occasions enhanced by the splendid costumes reflects the glory of the kingdom. Royal patronage ensures the survival of the country’s heritage and encourages the active participation of the population. The colourful spectacle and the vibrant atmosphere rank among the most memorable attractions of Thailand.

Classical Dance

Thai classical dance represents one of the most sophisticated forms of artistic expression. The most popular classical dances are the khon, traditionally performed by men concealed behind brightly-coloured ornate masks, and the lakhon dances, performed by women.

The dances are taken from the R­amakien, the epic Thai version of the Hindu Ramayana, which tells of the triumph of King Rama over the forces of evil. In these highly stylised dances, the characters do not speak, each prescribed movement of the hand or foot indicating a subtle change of mood or feeling. Narrative verses accompany the performance. The glorious costumes made of brocade and decorated with jewels complement the artistic achievement.


Thai classical music has been heavily influenced by Javanese, Indian, Burmese and Khmer musical traditions. Orchestras, known as piphat, consist of between five and 20 woodwind and percussion instruments. These include an oboe-like instrument known as the peenai, an assortment of finger cymbals known as ching, a series of semicircular gongs called kong wong yai and a curved wooden xylophone called a ranart. The piphat has few similarities with Western music owing to its complex set of musical scales.

Modern Thai music has less to recommend it. It is generally a mixture of heavy rock’n’roll, country music and love songs, with almost nothing of local distinction. Loud pop-music is played everywhere and karaoke clubs are very popular.


Puppets (nang yai) and marionettes (hun Krabok) were important forms of entertainment during the Ayutthayan period, when they were used to enact classical stories like the Ramayana in the theatre and royal courts. There is a fine collection of puppets which were used for court performances during the reigns of Rama V and VI, at the National Museum in Bangkok. The shadow-play puppets made from cowhide are still to be found in the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat with their finely wrought depictions and intricate design. At rare public performances, they are mounted on wooden sticks and manipulated from behind a backlit white screen.


The most popular form of theatre in Thailand is a mixture of slapstick comedy and sexual innuendo known as the likay. Performed by men dressed up as women, it bears a close resemblance to pantomime. The stories are based on legends or events of daily life which concern the people. Typically, troupes of actors travel from town to town entertaining their audiences with a potent combination of bawdy jokes and dances. These days, the number of troupes has fallen although they can still be seen during festivals in several parts of the country, especially the poorer northeast.


When they are not working, Thais are normally playing. It may be a game of football, Thai-style boxing or a get-together over a drink. The only requirement is that it is sanuk (good fun).


From football to boxing and from snooker to golf, Thais are avid sports followers. At night, they crowd around televisions to watch the latest boxing match, while at weekends they flock to Sanam Luang to fly their kites. Muay Thai or Thai boxing attracts the most attention. Like normal boxing, fighters can use their gloves, but they are also allowed to use their feet or any other part of the body except the head.

Takraw, a ball game which probably dates back to the early 17C, is no less popular. Groups of players use their feet, knees, elbows and heads – but never their hands – to knock a rattan ball from one player to the next without it touching the ground.

Kite Flying

Kite flying, introduced in Ayutthayan times to spur the rains, has long since become a competitive sport. Two kites are used in a symbolic battle of the sexes. The giant male kite chula tries to snare the more agile diamond-shaped female kite pakpao with a bamboo hook and force it down into his territory. The spectacle is held at Sanam Luang, opposite Bangkok’s Grand Palace, on most weekends in the dry season.

Fish Fighting

A rare breed of fish known as the pla kat provides the Thai with a source of frenzied betting. Two small fish (males only) with short, sturdy round fins are put into a tank whereupon they change colour and attack one another. The contest is over when one of the fish dies or takes refuge in a corner. Although outlawed, fish fighting remains a common occurrence.

Festivals and Fairs

The natural sense of fun of the population is given free rein during the numerous festivals which are celebrated with great zest throughout the year. These joyful occasions provide a unique opportunity to appreciate the age-old traditions which create a powerful bond among the people. The birthdays of the King (5 December) and of the Queen (13 August) are celebrated amid great popular rejoicing.

Songkran (April), the Water Festival, marks the beginning of the Buddhist year. The whole population joins in the festivities and enjoys dousing passers-by with water. In Bangkok the Phra Phuttha Sihing is taken from the Phra Thinang Phutthaisawan to the Sanam Luang where the people make libations to the sacred image and offer food to the monks. In the past, fish and caged birds were set free.

The celebrations are even more animated in Chiang Mai and last up to seven days. A grand offering of food is made to the monks at Pratu Thapae. A procession is headed by the Phra Phuttha Sihing Buddha image and the Venerable Abbot, followed by numerous Buddha images from other local communities.

Each temple sends dancers and folk music groups. A special Warrior Drum Dance (Klong Sabat Chai) is performed. Residents and other participants from schools, colleges and organisations wear the traditional blue peasant dress or period costumes inspired from the mural paintings in Phra Wihan Lai Kam.

Loy Krathong (November) which pays homage to the water spirits and marks the end of the rainy season is one of the most romantic festivals, held on the night of the full moon in November. Krathongs are leaf or paper floats beautifully decorated with flowers, lit candles and incense sticks, set adrift on rivers and canals to honour the water spirits and wash away the sins of the previous year. In Bangkok the main venue is the Mae Nam Chao Phraya.

The most romantic setting, however, is Sukhothai where the festival originated in the 13C. A Son et Lumière show relates the story of Nang Nophamas, a royal consort, who created the first krathong for King Ram Kamhaeng as an offering to the “Mother of Waters” (Mae Nam) for past lapses. The monuments are lit up by flickering lights and the atmosphere is magical.

The residents of Chiang Mai also hold a lively festival that includes a beauty contest and a procession of decorated floats that wends its way across town. Fireworks and hot-air balloons create a lively atmosphere, especially along Thanon Thapae to the Mae Ping which is filled with illuminated krathongs. Theatrical shows and musical performances including lanna folk songs are held along the riverside.

The Royal Ploughing Ceremony (May) is an ancient Indian ceremony of Brahmanic origin which survives only in T­hailand. It marks the beginning of the rains when planting starts in the rice paddies. In the past the king took part in ploughing a field to ensure the fecundity of the soil and an abundant harvest. The ceremony now takes place at Sanam Luang in Bangkok. The King presides over the ceremony, which is attended by members of the Royal Family. Participants wearing ornate traditional costumes drive the team of sacred water-buffaloes. The team leader (Phraya Raekna) selects one of three pieces of cloth of different length, and based on his choice Brahmanic astrologers make predictions on whether it will be a time of drought or of plenty. After the soil has been ploughed, the rice is sown. Then the King presents awards to farmers who have achieved the highest yields in the previous year. After the ceremony there is a free-for-all as spectators attempt to retrieve the rice grains from the freshly turned ground and end up covered with mud.

Thot Kathin (October), which takes place towards the end of the lunar calendar (mid-11 to mid-12 lunar month), marks the end of Buddhist Lent when new robes and gifts are presented to the monks. A Kathin is literally a set of saffron robes presented on a beautifully decorated tray.

Kathin Luang or Royal Kathin is performed by the King and the Royal Family at the main royal temples in Bangkok. Government departments and other important collectivities also make large donations and organise prestigious presentations. In special celebration years the King rides to Wat Arun in a spectacular ceremonial procession of royal barges.

As temples are allowed to accept only one kathin a year, prosperous families often reserve the right to make a presentation. Other donors can then make a contribution to the main donation.

Migrant workers usually return home for this festival which is an occasion of great rejoicing. Colourful parades are held and boat racing takes place on the waterways, in particular at Nan, Phitsanulok and Nakhon Phanom.

The Makha Bucha Festival (January) commemorates the first sermon of the Buddha to his disciples who had come together spontaneously. On the night of the full moon of the third lunar month the faithful take part in candle-lit processions around the temple.

The Flower Festival (February) —Chiang Mai. A riot of colour and rejoicing, with a procession of splendid floats decked with flowers, beauty contests and the election of the Festival Queen.

Chinese New Year (late February–early March) is celebrated throughout the countryside, but especially in Bangkok, Phuket and Nakhon Sawan.

Asean (March)— Yala.A singing bird contest.

Pattaya Festival (early April) features beauty parades, floats, special events and firework displays.

Buat Luk Kaeo Festival (early April)— Mae Hong Son. Celebrates the ordination of young Shan novices.

Rocket Festival (second weekend in May)— Yasothon. Features giant r­ockets fired to ensure plentiful rain in the m­onsoon season.

Visakha Bucha (May–full moon day) —countrywide.The holiest Buddhist holiday; celebrates the birth, enlightment and entry into nirvana of the Buddha.

Fruit Fairs (June–September)— Rayong, Chanthaburi, Chachoengsao and Surat Thani.

Khao Phansa (July)— Ubon Ratchathani. The beginning of the Buddhist period of fasting. Procession of beautifully-carved giant wax candles.

Vegetarian Festival (October)— Phuket. Parades of white-clothed devotees and ascetic displays.

Boat Races (late October–early November)— Nan, Nakhon Phanom, Phichit, Pathum Thani.

Loi Krathong (November–full moon night)— countrywide. The Festival of Lights. Lotus or banana leaf rafts adorned with lighted candles, incense sticks and flowers are set adrift on waterways. Wonderful displays at Sukhothai and Chiang Mai.

Elephant Round-Up (November)— Surin.An event that features demonstrations of intelligence, strength, gentleness and obedience. Wild elephant hunts and war parade.

HM the King’s Birthday (5 December)— countrywide. The Royal Guards swear allegiance to His Majesty King Bhumibol in a colourful ceremony.

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