TRADITION & CULTURE
Thailand is a country of scenic diversity and ancient traditions, of tranquil temples and modern urban excitement. With and independent history going back more than seven centuries, it has managed to absorb a variety of cultural influences and blend them into something uniquely and memorably Thai.
Each of its four major region offers a distinctive experience for the traveler in search of discovery. Misty mountains in the north shelter verdant valleys and exotic hill tribes, while in centers like Chiang Mai traditional customs and crafts have been preserved over generations. Along the picturesque coastlines of the east and south lie some of the world's most beautiful beaches and off-shore islands, each with its own beauty. Scattered over the northeastern plateau are superb khamer monuments from the time of Angkor Wat and natural parks teeming with wild life. In the Central Region can be found the evocative ruins of ancient Thai capitals and bustling Bangkok with its dynamic and countless pleasures.
The fertile Central Plains region, watered by the winding Chao Phraya River, has long been Thailand's cultural and economic heart. "Kin khao", the Thai expression for "to eat", translates literally as "to eat rice" ; and the vast checkerboard of paddy fields on either side of the river has traditionally provided the kingdom with its staple grain. When the annual monsoon rains sweep across the plains, the fields are transformed into a sea of vivid green dotted here and there with farming villages and the occasional gleaming spire of a Buddhist temple.
In the early 13th century, the first independent Thai capital was born at Sukhothai, thus ushering in a Golden Age of Buddhist art and architecture, The impressive remains of Sukhothai have been preserved as part of a historical park, a major attraction for visitors to the region.
When Sukhothai's power waned, a new capital rose further south on the banks of the Chao Phraya. Known as Ayutthaya, it ruled the kingdom for more than four centuries and became one of the largest, most cosmopolitan cities in Southeast Asia. Traders came not only from China, Japan and other Asian countries but also from distant Europe, bringing with them a wide range of new cultural influences. Ayutthaya was destroyed by an invading enemy in 1767 and today its extensive remains also attract numerous sightseers, many of whom come up from Bangkok by the traditional river route.
Bangkok became the capital in 1782 with the founding of the Chakri Dynasty that still occupies the Thai throne. Its early rulers sought to recreate the glories of Ayutthaya and many of the city's landmarks date from this period, among them the magnificent Grand Palace and its adjacent Wat Phra Keo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha),Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), and Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha). The flavor of the capital's past can be captured by a boat ride along the Chao Phraya River that flows through its traditional heart or an exploration of the picturesque klongs, or canals of Thonburi.
The city quickly outgrew its original walled center and is today a huge metropolis of high-rise buildings, air-conditioned shopping centers, and world-class luxury hotels. Despite its Western facade, however, Bangkok remains distinctively Thai, a fusion of modern and traditional, full of fascinating things to discover. All of Thailand's legendary bargains lustrous silks, bronze ware, antiques, gemstones, and jewelry, to mention only a few are available here, along with countless fine restaurants and other places dedicated to the pursuit of what Thais call sanuk, or pleasure.
Easily accessible to Bangkok are other attractions, among them the world's largest Buddhist monument at Nakhon Pathom, the famous Bridge over the River Kwai built during World War II, and, on the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand, the lively seaside resort of Pattaya
Much of what we now know as Thai cuisine also evolved in the Central Region. Rice, fish, and vegetables, flavored with garlic, black pepper, and nam pla, or fish sauce, along with an abundance of fresh fruits, comprised the basic diet of Sukhothai. With the rise of Ayutthaya, other elements were added to the increasingly complex Thai blend. That now essential ingredient, the fiery-hot chili pepper, was introduced at this time, along with the equally popular coriander, lime, and tomato. These may have been brought from their native South America by the Portuguese, who opened relations with Ayutthaya in 1511 and also left a lasting imprint in the form of popular Thai sweets based on egg yolks and sugar. Other influences came from India, Japan, Persia, and especially, China, though in almost every case their contributions were subtly altered and transformed to suite Thai tastes.
Unlike the north and northeast, where glutinous rice is popular, Central Thais like the fragrant plain variety, most commonly steamed but sometimes fried or boiled. In addition to fresh-water fish, there is seafood from the nearby gulf as well as a wide range of fresh vegetables and such fruits as mangos, durians, custard apples, guavas, and pomeloes. Sino-Thai food is popular in cities like Bangkok, particularly in the form of numerous noodle dishes.