Things to see and do - Thailand
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The Country today
The Country today
Thailand, today, is an extraordinary country of contrasts. From its countryside full to the brim with rice paddies to vibrant multicultural cities that seemingly never sleep, age-old traditions thrive alongside contemporary character. Thailand’s people have a happy-go-lucky attitude to life and generally a good standard of living. The country’s buoyant personality mirrors its relationship to the sea, as beaches beckon tourists year round and a thriving fishing industry defines a cuisine that is famous the world over.
Thailand’s population numbers 62 million (2004). The average density is 121 inhabitants per sq km, although there are major variations from region to region. In Bangkok, the average is 3 580 per sq km, while in the mountainous northern province of Mae Hong Son, the average density is fewer than 20 inhabitants per sq km. According to the latest census, almost half of the population are below the age of 20. The average lifespan of Thai men is put at 66.3 years and for women it is 73.8 years.
Outside Bangkok (population of 9.4 million), major urban centres are few. Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat) now ranks as the country’s second largest city with a population of around 430 000. Chiang Mai has a population of around 257 000 while Hat Yai numbers some 310 000 inhabitants. The lack of cities reflects the predominantly agrarian nature of Thai society. Until recently, most people preferred to live in villages tending their fields and supporting extended families. Rapid industrial growth, however, changed that picture. Every year more than a million seasonal migrants left the countryside for the big cities in search of work and every year, fewer of them returned to their traditional homes. Following the recent economic downturn the reverse is now the case as migrant workers have returned in droves to their villages which already face an acute problem as remittances to workers’ families have now dried up and where there are few job prospects.
Under a successful family planning programme introduced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, population growth has slowed from 3% to 1.5%, making Thailand one of the most exemplary countries in birth control in the world. Early initiatives included rural programmes like “have a vasectomy, win a pig”. Children at school learn birth control songs from an early age. Under a new AIDS awareness initiative, sex education is accessible to all levels of Thai society.
The Thai Nation
Thailand has the remarkable distinction of being the only country in Southeast Asia never to have been colonised. Neither has it been divided by civil war or troubled by the racial conflicts of neighbouring countries. The country’s achievement is reflected in the name Thailand or “Prathet Thai” which literally means “Land of the Free”.
Since 1932, when Thailand adopted a constitutional monarchy, the Thai nation has been governed by a prime minister, a cabinet and a national assembly supported by a highly-educated civil service. The country is now divided into 76 provinces (changwat), plus Bangkok, each with a governor and a provincial capital. The provincial government in turn overlooks the affairs of districts (amphoe), communes (tambon) and villages (mou ban) which are presided over by the village headman.
Democratic institutions, however, have been overshadowed by military interference. Since 1932, there have been 19 coups or attempted coups as the army has intervened in times of uncertainty. Until recently, the prime minister was almost always a senior military official. Adherence to Buddhism and the continued power of the monarchy have acted as further stabilising factors for the Thai nation, providing a degree of unity rare in most other countries of Southeast Asia.
In 1946, Thailand was granted membership of the United Nations. The country also acted as a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is a regional economic and political forum.
Thais revere their monarch and show a degree of respect for the royal family that can be found in few other countries. Photographs of the royal family are found in almost every household and every village. Criticism of the monarchy is viewed as taboo. Constitutionally, the king is the supreme head of state, the head of religion and the head of the armed forces. While the end of the absolute power of the monarchy in 1932 may have reduced the direct power of the king, it has not lessened his influence.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej who came to the throne in 1946 is the longest-reigning monarch. Revered above all as a man of the people, he has travelled to every province in Thailand to meet his subjects. In the palace grounds in Bangkok, he has set up agricultural experiments to find better crops and higher yields for the benefit of the people. In the May 1992 riots, it was the King who called on Prime Minister Suchinda and the protesters to reconcile their differences and who defused a potentially explosive situation. On 5 December every year, a national holiday is declared for the king’s birthday, and celebrations and processions are held all over the country.
Thailand’s long and turbulent history at the crossroads of Southeast Asia has ensured steady migrations of people from neighbouring countries. Over 85% of the people claim to be ethnic Thai, but to these can be added more than five million Chinese, three million Lao, as well as Indians, Burmese, Malays and Mons.
Thailand’s mix of races and open assimilation policy have led to greater racial harmony than elsewhere in the region. For the most part, ethnic groups have intermarried and adopted Thai names. The majority regard themselves primarily as Thai citizens.
Eighty-five percent of the country’s population claim to be Siamese, a people believed to have originated in Yunnan Province in Southern China. From about the 10C onwards, the Thai started to move downriver into modern Thailand, settling first in Lanna in the north and later in the Central Plain. In the years since, the Thai have assimilated countless ethnic peoples, notably the Mon, Khmer, Lao, Malay, Indian, Persian and Shans as well as the Chinese.
In the 19C and early 20C century, large numbers of Chinese settled along the major rivers and in the coastal cities of Thailand to trade in furs, rice, silk and spices. Today they play a disproportionally large role in some of the most important sectors of the economy, notably gold, banking, finance and commerce. Although the Chinese can be found predominantly in the old commercial centre of Bangkok around Thanon Yaowarat, they now form a substantial part of most urban populations.
There are more Lao-speaking people in Thailand than in the whole of Laos itself. In all, some four million of them live mainly in the northeast and along the banks of the Mekong River. The majority crossed over into Thailand during the 19C when Siam ruled over parts of Laos. They continue to speak their own language and keep alive the folklore of Vientiane as much as they do the legends of Siam.
The Khmer people have been present in Thailand since the 8C, when they occupied parts of the northeast. Major concentrations of them are still to be found around Aranyaprathet and in the northeast of the country, especially in the border provinces of Buriram, Surin and Si Saket. Several refugee camps can be found along the border, although the war between Cambodia and Vietnam ended many years ago. These people are being encouraged to return to their homes in Cambodia.
An ancient Mon culture existed in central Thailand and southeast Burma as far back as the 6C. Nowadays groups of Mon people can still be found around Nakhon Pathom and Sangkhlaburi, although many have recently arrived from Myanmar (Burma), forced out by the repressive military regime.
An estimated three million Muslims inhabit the southern region, predominantly in the states of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat which border Malaysia. The majority of these people are of Malay origin and speak Malay as well as Thai. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a move towards separatism with several incidents sparking unrest along the border. These days the king has a palace in Narathiwat Province, and Islam is widely tolerated.
The Hill Tribes
They are found in the northern region, up in the hills and the valleys along the borders with Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. In all there are an estimated 500 000 hill-tribes people or chao doi split into six groups: the Akha, the Hmong, the Karen, the Lahu, the Lisu and the Yao. These different tribal groups composed of many sub-groups have their own costumes and sets of belief. They speak different languages and worship the spirits of the winds and the rains.
Originating mainly from Southern China and Tibet, the majority of the hill tribes are relatively recent arrivals having crossed over in the last hundred years. Only the Karen have been here longer. Most tribes prefer to live above 1 000m, practising slash-and-burn agriculture, foraging and breeding livestock such as pigs and chickens. In the past they moved from year to year in search of more fertile land and caused much depredation in the forests and on the mountains.
In recent times, the government has attempted to integrate the tribal people into the fabric of Thai society and to replace opium growing and slash-and-burn cultivation with other forms of agriculture. Potatoes, carrots and cabbages are now grown in addition to rice. Special royal projects promoted by the King and the late Princess Mother have also encouraged the hill tribes to grow temperate fruits and vegetables as cash crops and to sell handicrafts, especially silverware, embroidery and woven goods to shops in the cities. These days, schools are also being built as a means of teaching children about life in Thailand. Health care is also available.
This interaction has been criticised for contributing to the erosion of cultural values and creating a state of dependency. The outside world is encroaching further as more trekkers take to the trails. The Hill Tribe Research Institute at the University of Chiang Mai carries out valuable work on tribal culture and aims to help the people preserve their traditions and identity in a fast-changing world.
The Hmong (Meo)
Originating from Southern China, the Hmong (Meo) number around 70 000 and are mainly concentrated around Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son. They generally live at high altitudes between 1 000m and 1 200m growing rice, corn and opium; they worship the spirit of the sky and are fiercely independent. They wear black costumes delicately embroidered with geometric designs, silver necklaces and elaborate headdresses studded with silver ornaments. The women are expert weavers and needlewomen; the men make excellent fighters who have been involved in all major conflicts in the region.
Believed to be from Southern China and Myanmar (Burma), the Lisu number some 24 000 and are spread in nine of the northern provinces. They grow rice, corn and opium and sell domestic animals like pigs and cattle. They can often be identified by their silver ornaments and ornate breastplates made from coins.
The men sport black costumes and a white turban, while the women wear red and turquoise dresses decorated with stripes, and large headdresses around which are wound multi- coloured tassels.
The most numerous of the hill tribes with a population of about 235 000, the Karen are largely concentrated along the western border with Myanmar. They cultivate rice, look after domestic animals and live in houses built on stilts. They worship the winds and the rains; many, however, have embraced Buddhism or Christianity. The women weave a rough cloth in shades of red and orange which is made into tunics often embroidered and decorated with seeds. Karen girls typically wear long white tunics, exchanging them for red ones when they marry. The men are skilled elephant trainers. Many Karen from neighbouring Myanmar have escaped the conflicts waged for an independent Karen state and sought refuge in camps on the Myanmar border.
Originating from the highlands of Tibet, the Lahu number around 55 000 and are concentrated around the districts of Fang and Chiang Rai. Their houses are built on stilts and grouped in villages at high altitude. They practise slash-and-burn cultivation and are famed for their hunting skills. They are strongly animist and hold frequent rituals in order to receive blessings from the gods. They generally dress in black tunics with white piping.
Originating from Yunnan in Southern China, the Akha number some 33 000 and are some of the most recent arrivals in Thailand. Large numbers live in villages on the slopes of Doi Mae Salong. They cultivate rice, corn and opium. They are strict animists worshipping the sun and the moon, and erect spirit gates at the village entrance. Their elaborate headdresses are studded with coins and colourful beads. The women wear embroidered black skirts and patchwork leggings.
Often known as the Mien, these people originated in China. Some 25 000 live mainly around Chiang Rai, Phayao and Nan. They have traditionally cultivated opium. They worship their ancestors and practise Taoism and are the only tribe which has a written tradition. The women wear ankle-length indigo tunics and baggy pants with small geometric patterns embroidered in cross-stitch, thick purple sashes around the neck and large turbans. Silver ornaments are added for ceremonies and festivals. The children wear close-fitting hats adorned with red pompons.
Other Ethnic Groups
Discovered little more than a decade ago, the elusive Mrabri tribe often known as Phi Thong Luang (spirit of the yellow leaves), live around Nan Province and are the only pygmy race in Asia. Traditionally these people have moved with the changing seasons as the leaves from which their huts are built turn yellow, although they too are beginning to settle permanently giving up hunting and gathering as the forests disappear.
The Sakai, an aboriginal people, are probably the peninsula’s oldest inhabitants. They have flat features, a dark complexion and frizzy reddish hair. They lead a primitive life in the jungle in Yala Province and have their own language, music and dance.
The Chao Le meaning Sea Gypsies are nomadic people of obscure origin who inhabit the islands in the Andaman Sea including Phuket. They hold animist beliefs and have their own language and distinctive customs. They are hardy sailors and fishermen.
The Padong, an offshoot of the Karen tribe, are a more recent arrival from Myanmar (Burma) in the Mae Hong Son area. The women wear copper spirals round their neck to conform to ritual practices. Young girls from the age of five are selected by the shaman to wear the spirals which are changed every year until they reach 20 years of age. They also wear spirals around their calves.
Sanuk, which literally means fun, is the single most important characteristic of the Thais. These resourceful, happy-go-lucky people do not worry about the weather, the pollution or the unruly behaviour of their politicians. They are more interested in finding out where the next laugh will come from or their next snack.
Generally hospitable, outgoing and informal, the Thai people have little concept of time. Tomorrow can mean many moons away or never. Their most common refrain is mai pen rai, meaning no worries. Thais are, however, hard workers and impeccably mannered. Only when they are pushed into a corner and forced to lose face do tempers fray, and then a darker side comes to the surface.
Respect for elders and figures of authority is taught from an early age and persists throughout adulthood. Older people, especially parents and grandparents are addressed as Pi and will be looked up to as a matter of course. So too are teachers, civil servants and those of a higher status. Younger members of society are expected to wai to them (a traditional form of greeting) and to obey without question. The level of respect extends especially to Buddhist monks as well as to members of the Royal Family who are addressed in the special Thai court language known as rachasap.
Like many facets of Thai behaviour, attitudes to sex remain something of a paradox. Prostitution is widespread, with as many as 700 000 people believed to be involved in the sex industry. The majority of Thai men will have their first sexual encounter in a brothel but, although prostitution is tolerated, sex remains in many ways a taboo subject. Thai women are expected to refrain from sex before marriage. Most live at home with their parents, while live-in relationships are still frowned upon. None the less, growing fears over AIDS (estimates put the number of HIV cases at over 600 000) are reshaping Thai attitudes to sex, leading to better education and a growing awareness of the role of women.
A Land of Contrasts
Thailand is filled with the most glaring contradictions. Its urban landscape mixes modern office blocks and BMW cars with spirit houses and the famous three-wheeled tuk-tuks. Its temples and archeological sites are surrounded by tinselled lights and giant billboards advertising upmarket whisky brands or the latest fad. Thais see as little contradiction in these opposing elements as they do in their elected prime minister consulting an astrologer. On the one hand, they constantly remind tourists that they were never colonised. On the other, they happily embrace almost anything that is American, be it hamburgers, T-shirts or even giant shopping malls.
Their love of novelty extends to a fascination with technology. Microchips and mobile phones are as much in evidence in Bangkok as tricycles and traffic jams. These days, the country can even boast its own satellite station.
They are boundless in number, often trivial in content, but they continue to be embraced in many parts of Thailand. Never have a haircut on a Wednesday or move house on a Saturday. Even in the glamorous streets of Bangkok, tradition/superstition exerts a powerful influence as when drivers hold their palms together as they pass in front of the Erawan Statue. Other traditions are religious by nature. Rubbing gold leaf onto a Buddha image and giving food to the monks bring good luck. Traditions help preserve the status quo. But some are deep-set. Women should never touch monks or pass anything directly to them. Nobody should ever insult the king.
Colourful sarongs known as pakoma, jewel-encrusted robes, and bright costumes decked with orchids: these are the images conjured up by Thailand. But to admire these traditional costumes, it is usually necessary to attend a tourist show, a festival or a local celebration.
In the countryside, paisins or sarongs (a length of cloth wrapped around the waist), woven from homespun cotton or local silk, are commonly worn. Loose cotton shirts called mohom and large hats made of palm leaf to keep off the sun are equally common among workers in the rice fields. At such popular festivals as Khao Phansa or Songkran the local women don striking embroidered costumes to perform ritual dances and other religious practices. In the northeast region especially, colourful pieces of cloth known as sabai are draped diagonally over the shoulder and fall to the waist.
In the cities, western clothes are the norm rather than the exception. Monks wear robes made of saffron-coloured cotton. Government officials wear suits or military uniforms. Only occasionally among the hill tribes of the north are traditional costumes worn all year round.
Despite the importance of agriculture as a source of labour and output, it is industry which in recent years has been the driving force of the economy.
Manufacturing along with tourism now account for more than 50% of foreign exchange earnings. Until the mid-1990s, they enabled Thailand to post some of the fastest growth rates in the world (GDP averaged 9% between 1986-96 as opposed to 4% for 1999-2000). But while new factories sprang up all over the country producing everything from textiles to shoes, electronics and car components, the influx of foreign capital also led to over-capacity, inefficiency and in some cases blatant corruption. On 1 July 1997, Thailand devalued its currency signalling the beginning of a major economic re-adjustment that continues to this day. The impact has been felt in every sector. More than 50 finance companies have been closed down while even the major banks have been forced to recapitalize. The collapse of the economy has sent the price of property plummeting and has led to a rapid rise in unemployment forcing migrant workers to return to their villages in search of work – or simply survival.
Under a US$17 billion structural adjustment programme agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Thailand is committed to reducing government expenditure, strengthening its financial system, boosting exports and selling off state enterprises to the private sector.
To date, Thailand has closely followed the guidelines laid down by the IMF.Structural reforms are helping to lay the foundations of a new era of stable growth. In 1999-2000 there were signs of a fragile recovery as exports improved and as the public and private sectors attempt to upgrade Thailand’s competitiveness, an essential factor for its medium and long term economic development. The country faired better in 2002-2004, but the tsunami disaster and high oil prices affected its growth in 2005-2006.
Electronics, textiles and car components form the main constituents of Thailand’s growing industrial might providing in excess of £10 billion in exports each year. Giant multi-national companies like Mitsubishi, Sony and Toyota have all set up manufacturing plants in Thailand to take advantage of cheaper labour. Some well-known European names like Nestlé, ICI, Unilever and Michelin are also present on the business scene. New efforts are under way to upgrade Thailand’s industry from labour-intensive to capital-intensive in order to maintain competitiveness with countries like China, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Reserves of tin, zinc and fluorite are to be found mainly in the south, with exports reaching £174 million in 1994. Sapphires and rubies are mined in small quantities around Chanthaburi on the east coast. Larger quantities of gems are smuggled over the border from Myanmar and Kampuchea, and brisk trade is carried out at Mae Sot and Chanthaburi.
Thailand is one of the world’s largest producers of silk as well as of brand labels exported to fashion centres in London and Paris. Textile exports totalled in excess of £3.5 billion in 1997, although fierce regional competition is beginning to take its toll.
Traditional silk weavers can be seen in the north and in the northeast around the towns of Chaiyaphum and Khon Kaen.
Tourism has proved to be a great boon for Thailand. In 2000, 9.5 million tourists visited the country, spending an estimated US$280 000 million. Bangkok now boasts some of Asia’s leading five-star hotels, while Phuket, Ko Samui and Chiang Mai also have an international-class tourist infrastructure. Despite a severe glut of hotels in many areas and growing problems with pollution, the Thai government continues to view tourism as the single most important earner of foreign exchange.
Thailand has an excellent road network comprising more than 50 000km of roads and highways serving all major regions. Main highways link Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the north, Nong Khai in the northeast, Pattaya in the Gulf and Hat Yai in the south. Smaller roads offer less traffic and more local colour but a vast programme to upgrade the road network is under way.
Tourists arriving in Thailand generally fly into Dong Muang International Airport in Bangkok. From here, Thai International and Bangkok Airways, the country’s two domestic airlines, serve a network of regional airports. A new airport in Samut Prakan, Suvarnabhumi Airport, located just south of Bangkok opened in September 2006 to handle the increased air traffic.
The State Railway of Thailand also operates eight major train routes linking Bangkok to the south, the north and the northeast, along with Singapore, and maintains an efficient service.
Agriculture is the lifeblood of the Thai people. Over one-third of the country’s total land area, 171 000sq km, is taken up with agricultural production. Agricultural exports including rice and tapioca represent some 11% of total exports. And while industry and tourism now contribute more to national revenues, it is agriculture that continues to provide a living for the rural majority.
More than 80% of Thailand’s population eat rice, while almost half of the working population is involved in producing it. Rice paddies cover almost all the central plains as well as parts of the north, the northeast and the south. Not surprisingly, Thailand is one of the largest rice producers in the world, harvesting some 20 million tonnes a year. The country also exported 7.27 million tonnes of rice in 2005 as far afield as the Phillipines, Russia and North Korea. Traditionally rice has been harvested twice a year in irrigated areas in the central valley. Nowadays new strains of rice are being used which offer higher yields, with some parts of the central region producing three crops a year.
Derived from coconut palms, copra is used to make coconut oil, cosmetics and fats. Thailand is now a major world producer.
After Malaysia and Indonesia, Thailand ranks as the third largest producer of raw rubber in the world with an export market worth US$2.8 billion. Rubber plantations are located mainly in the southern region, especially in the provinces of Phuket, Surat Thani, Hat Yai and Satun. Exports of dry latex yielded over US$550 million.
In parts of the north and the northeast, tobacco, sweet corn, maize, sugar cane, tomatoes and cotton are grown. Near Chiang Mai and around the Mae Sa Valley, there are also apples, grapes and strawberries. Thailand produces more than 1.5 million tonnes of vegetables a year. It is also the biggest tapioca exporter in the world ahead of its giant Asian neighbour Indonesia. Tapioca is used mainly as animal feed.
Breeding of cattle, water-buffalo, pigs and poultry provides an important source of income for villagers, especially in the northeast where the soil is too poor to support traditional arable crops. In the past, water-buffaloes were mainly used for work in the fields. Nowadays, with tractors on the increase, larger numbers are bred for their meat. There is also a growing dairy industry.
Thailand is the biggest exporter of tinned tuna fish in the world with canned seafood exports reaching US$2.2 billion to Japan alone in 2005. It is also a major producer of fresh and frozen shrimp, with exports increasing substantially to over 5% of the world market.
For thousands of years, water-buffaloes have been as much a feature of life in the fields as the farmers themselves. These rugged beasts of burden have traditionally ploughed the waterlogged soil, and after the golden rice stalks are harvested have prepared the ground for the next crop. Now these ubiquitous animals are being replaced by tractors, by combine harvesters and by other machines designed to increase output and improve productivity. Only in the poorer districts is the water-buffalo likely to have a real future in the paddies.
Food and Drink
The culinary excellence of Thailand wins high praise from gastronomes everywhere. The delicious fare, the exquisite presentation of the dishes with finely carved vegetables and fruits, and the harmony of colours and textures are a feast for the senses.
A Simple Life
King Ram Kamhaeng’s stone inscription (13C) celebrates the bountifulness of nature: “In the water there is fish, in the fields there is rice”. Early accounts mention the simple, wholesome fare enjoyed by the people – rice with dried or salted fish and vegetables seasoned with spices and the pungent fish sauce. Spices – cloves, nutmeg – were introduced as a result of trade with the East and the large Asian communities which had settled in Ayutthaya. Chillies which originate in South America were probably brought in the 16C by the Portuguese. The latter’s influence is still evident today in some Thai desserts based on sugar and egg yolk.
During the Ayutthaya period a refined type of cuisine prevailed in noble households. Aristocratic ladies and their attendants perfected their skills in floral decoration, in the art of fruit and vegetable carving and in the preparation of elaborate dishes combining subtle flavours and visual appeal. This required much skill and long hours of preparation. The delectable fare was complemented by fine porcelain, in particular Bencharong (five-coloured) ware. This tradition survives in prosperous Thai homes and in the elegant surroundings of high-class establishments.
A Blend of Flavours
Chinese, Indian and Malayan influences have contributed to the culinary sophistication of Thailand. From spicy green curries to steamed fish with lemon and sizzling barbecued chicken, Thai food offers a subtle blend of flavours. Contrary to popular belief, it is not inevitably hot and there is a host of less piquant or plain dishes served with rice and vegetables. Diners who are wary of chillies should specify “mai pet” (not hot) when ordering.
Thai cooking also combines a wealth and breadth of spices that can be found in few other cuisines around the world. Galangal, a spice resonant of ginger, provides a delicious blend of hot and sweet flavours. Tamarind adds fruitiness, and coriander a wonderful sweet aromatic essence. Ginger, sweet basil, garlic, kaffir-lime leaves, lime and lemon grass give extra pungency.
To these spices are added up to 40 different varieties of chilli ranging from the wonderfully-named prik khi nu (bird’s eye peppers) to the fearsome prik chi fa.
All over the country there is a rich base of ingredients brought fresh from the market place: chicken, beef, pork, fish and seafood are merely the basics. There is a great variety of tropical vegetables: morning glory (water convolvulus), yard-long beans, green papaya, purple aubergine, exotic mushrooms and black peppercorns. Common vegetables include cabbages, carrots, spring onions, tomatoes and bamboo shoots.
Even when it comes to rice, Thais are perfectionists. The country produces over 50 different kinds of rice. But while Thailand is the largest exporter of rice in the world, it still keeps the best varieties for itself in the belief that most foreigners cannot appreciate the difference. The delicate flavour of jasmine rice is highly prized.
For visitors who prefer more familiar fare, Bangkok has some of the finest international restaurants in the world serving French, Italian, German, Japanese, Indian and Vietnamese food. Prices are reasonable by comparison with European countries and standards of cleanliness and service extremely high.
A Typical Meal
A typical Thai meal will consist of a curry, a steamed dish, a fried delicacy, a spicy salad, a soup and a plate of vegetables. The dishes will also combine beef, pork, chicken, fish and seafood. All the dishes are generally served together and are accompanied by plain rice (khao suay) or occasionally by noodles. A variety of sauces and condiments is added such as nam pla, a pungent sauce made from fermented fish, nam phrik with chopped chillies as well as pickled or fresh garlic, cucumbers, spring onions and fresh chillies.
Tom yam, a clear spicy soup, is a pungent broth made with ginger root, onions, tomatoes and chillies, to which are added lime juice and lemon grass. It can be cooked with either shrimp or seafood, chicken, beef or pork. Probably the most popular dish to order is tom yam kung, which is served with prawns. Tom ka kai is a creamy soup with coconut milk and chicken.
Yam, a spicy salad made from either meat or seafood, is generally accompanied by lettuce, garlic, chillies and lemon, and tends to be rather hot.
There are different kinds of curries which are all delicious. Kaeng khieo wan, a fragrant creamy curry, is a favourite which combines the pungency of chillies with the blandness of coconut milk and baby aubergines. Kaeng phet pet yang, a spicy duck curry, is a great delicacy.
There is an amazing variety of fresh fish: sea bass, tuna fish, catfish, eels, prawns, squid, mussels, clams and the famous Phuket Lobster. Order pla thot for fried fish and pla neung for steamed fish. Other delicacies include pla phat king, which is fish cooked with ginger, and pla priowan, a sweet and sour fish.
Vegetarians can also have a field day in Thailand. Tofu pronounced tao hu can be found in almost any restaurant, generally served in rich gravy or fried with oyster sauce. Pak bung fai daeng which is morning glory stir-fried in a wok is also popular. For a plate of mixed vegetables, simply ask for phat phak ruam, which is usually a variety of French beans, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes and mushrooms fried in oyster sauce.
There are plenty of other staple dishes which are served in most Western-style restaurants. Those include khao phat (fried rice), phat thai (Thai-style fried rice noodles) and po pra (spring rolls).
The remarkable diversity of Thai food is best appreciated by visiting the regions. The spicy Isan food reflects the amazing ingenuity and imagination of the people of the arid northeast and has brought the region culinary fame throughout the kingdom.
Larb is one of the most common dishes. Generally made from a combination of minced beef or pork mixed with shallots, chilli peppers and coriander, it is typically accompanied by sliced cabbage and mint leaves. Another local favourite is namtok, which consists of very spicy beef and is usually served with sticky or glutinous rice known as khao nieo. Spicy Isan sausages and grilled chicken with a piquant sauce are delicious.
A speciality is som tam, a salad that combines shredded green papaya with dried shrimps, lemon juice, fish sauce, garlic and lashings of chillies. Adventurous diners can also try local delicacies such as fried crickets, chicken claws and snail curry.
Northern Thailand also has its own distinctive cuisine, often influenced by neighbouring Burma. Kaeng hang le is a thick pork curry infused with garlic and ginger. Khao soi is a popular dish made from noodles and curried sauces.
The traditional way of dining in the north, however, is the Kantoke dinner served at a low round table. It comprises a selection of dishes including kaeng kai, a chicken curry, cap moo, a type of crispy pork skin, and nam prik ong, a local speciality made from pork, tomatoes, onions and chillies, and glutinous rice. Several restaurants in Chiang Mai specialise in Kantoke dinners. They are generally geared towards tourists and feature classical dances and hill-tribe shows.
The South, where the cuisine has been influenced by Muslim-style cooking, claims to serve the hottest food. Kaeng tai pla or fish-kidney curry is a fiery dish whereas kaeng Mussaman is an Indian-style curry made with either beef or chicken. Malay fish curries are often garnished with fresh fruit.
With its vast coastal waters and countless fishing villages, this is also the region to eat freshly cooked lobster, steamed crab and mussels, fried squid as well as the delicious tom ka kung, made with prawns cooked in coconut milk with galangal root – sometimes served in a coconut shell.
Thai desserts are works of art in their own right. Widely referred to as khanom, they are brightly coloured, beautifully presented and almost always sweet. Rice cakes, coconut custards (sangkaya ma phrao), egg-yolk cakes, jellies, sweet palm kernels (luuk taan cheuam) and sweet vermicelli in coconut milk are just some of the delicacies. Ornamental fruits made from bean paste may also be used for special occasions. Some are coloured with food dyes and soaked in jasmine or other aromatic flowers to provide a pleasing fragrance.
Diners who prefer something less sweet, but equally exotic, should ask for pon la mai. This is a selection of fresh fruits ranging from pineapple (sapparot), papaya (malakaw), to rambuttans (ngaw), longans (lamyai), water-melon (teng moh), mangoes (mamuang), bananas (kluay). In season the durian (thurian) is also on offer. This fruit arouses strong passions. Some who dislike it describe it as a strong Camembert cheese on account of its strong smell and creamy texture; for aficionados , however,it is the king of Thai fruits.
A Thai meal is a social occasion. A selection of dishes and condiments is placed around a large bowl of rice and guests serve themselves to a little of everything in any order. It is customary for hosts to serve their guests from dishes placed out of reach rather than to pass the plate around, and for hosts or waiters to serve more food to diners unless they indicate clearly that they have finished their meal. Forks and spoons are offered as a rule; knives are not required as Thai food is usually cut into bite-sized pieces. In the north and northeast, it is proper to use one’s fingers to form balls of glutinous rice which are then dipped in the sauces.
Thais enjoy their food with the same compulsive exuberance with which they appreciate life itself. They like it spicy and they like a constant supply of it.
As a result there has sprung up a veritable industry providing them with sustenance, often 24 hours a day. In the street markets, vendors offer pieces of meat or chicken on skewers cooked over red hot coals, great vats of curried chicken, beef or pork as well as the popular barbecued chicken known as kai yang. Almost without exception the food is delicious. Visitors newly arrived in the country, however, should go easy to begin with, as market food can cause gastric problems.
Noodle stalls (ran kuay thieo), simple Chinese-style kitchens, offer kuay thieo, a soup made from boiling stock and noodles with chicken or fish balls to which are added vinegar with sliced chilli, a small spoonful of sugar, and ground peanuts.
Diners who do not speak enough Thai to order can simply point to the dish that takes their fancy and sit down at a nearby table. It is extremely rare that the vendors will overcharge tourists.
Local people generally drink whisky or beer to accompany their food. Local whisky, including the potent Mekong, is made from fermented rice or sugar-cane and tastes similar to rum. Scotch whisky, however, is favoured by the fashionable crowd. There are excellent European-style lagers brewed locally as well as Singha, a distinctly Thai beer, which are very popular. Familiar and not so familiar soft drinks are also sold in Thailand. Wines from Australia and Europe are on offer in most European restaurants at a price. They are also available in almost all the business-class hotels as well as the major supermarkets. A dry white wine made from the Chenin blanc grape is produced in Loei in the northeast. It marks the initial achievement of a fledgeling local wine industry.
Bottled water is available from many shops and restaurants. Nam yen means cold water. In view of the heat, it is advisable to drink at least two litres a day. Ice cubes are added to most drinks, but should be avoided unless made with purified water.