Thais make up the majority of the population with 75 percent of all inhabitants. Thai Chinese make up 14 percent with the remaining 11 percent made up of various other groups.
The language of the central Thai population is the educational and administrative language. Several other small Thai groups include the Shan, Lue, and Phu Thai.
Malay and Yawi-speaking Muslim’s language of the south comprise another significant minority group (2.3%). Other groups include the Khmer; the Mon, who are substantially assimilated with the Thai; and the Vietnamese. Smaller mountain-dwelling tribes, such as the Hmong and Mien, as well as the Karen, number about 788,024. Some 300,000 Hmong, who ironically have lived this area f more generations than the Thais themselves, are to receive citizenship by 2010.
Thailand is also home to more than 200,000 foreigners from, for example, Europe (specifically United Kingdom) and North America. Increasing numbers of migrants from Burma, Laos, and Cambodia as well as nations such as Nepal, India, along with those from the West and Japan had pushed the total number of non-nationals residing in Thailand to around 3.5 million by the end of 2009, up from an estimated 2 million in 2008, and about 1.3 million in the year 2000. A rising awareness of minorities is slowly changing attitudes in a country where non-nationals, some having resided in what is now Thailand longer than the Thais themselves, are barred from numerous privileges ranging from healthcare, ownership of property, or schooling in their own language.
The population is mostly rural, concentrated in the rice-growing areas of the central, northeastern, and northern regions. However, as Thailand continues to industrialize, its urban population – 45.7% (in 2010, according to NESDB) of the total population, principally in the Bangkok area – is growing.
Thailand’s highly successful government-sponsored family planning program has resulted in a dramatic decline in population growth from 3.1% in 1960 to around 0.4% today. The Worldbank forecasts a contraction of the population in ten years time. In 1970, an average of 5.7 people lived in a Thai household. At the time of the 2010 census, the figure was down to 3.2. Even though Thailand has one of the best social insurance systems in Asia, the increasing group of elderly people is a challenge for the country.
The 1997 constitution mandated 12 years of free education, however, this is not provided universally. Education accounts for 19% of total government expenditures.
Theravada Buddhism is the official religion of Thailand and is officially the religion of about 97% of its people. Muslims are some 10% and 5% other religions including Christianity, Hinduism, especially among immigrants. In addition to Malay and Yawi speaking Thais and other southerners who are Muslim, the Cham of Cambodia in recent years begun a large scale influx into Thailand. The government permits religious diversity, and other major religions are represented, though there is much social tension, especially in the South.
Thai greeting, the smile is an important symbol of refinement in Thai culture.
The traditional customs and the folklore of Thai people were gathered and described by Phya Anuman Rajadhon in the 20th century, at a time when modernity changed the face of Thailand and a great number of traditions disappeared or became adapted to modern life. Still, the strife towards refinement, rooted in ancient Siamese culture, consisting in promoting what is refined and avoiding coarseness is the main emphasis in the daily life of all Thai people and topmost in their scale of values.
One of the most distinctive Thai customs is the wai. Showing greeting, farewell, or acknowledgement, it comes in several forms reflecting the relative status of those involved. Generally the salutation involves a prayer-like gesture with the hands, similar to the Añjali Mudrā of the Indian subcontinent, and it also may include a slight bow of the head. This salutation is often accompanied by a serene smile symbolizing a welcoming disposition and a pleasant attitude. Thailand is often referred to as the “Land of Smiles” in tourist brochures.
Public display of affection in public is not overly common in traditional Thai society, especially between lovers. However, views are changing to accept this and it is becoming more common, especially among the younger generation.
A notable social norm holds that touching someone on the head may be considered rude. It is also considered rude to place one’s feet at a level above someone else’s head, especially if that person is of higher social standing. This is because the Thai people consider the foot to be the dirtiest and lowliest part of the body, and the head the most respected and highest part of the body. This also influences how Thais sit when on the ground—their feet always pointing away from others, tucked to the side or behind them. Pointing at or touching something with the feet is also considered rude.
Since serene detachment is valued, conflict and sudden displays of anger are eschewed in Thai culture and, as is many Asian cultures, the notion of face is extremely important. For these reasons, visitors should take care not to create conflict, to display anger or to cause a Thai person to lose face. Disagreements or disputes should be handled with a smile and no attempt should be made to assign blame to another. In everyday life in Thailand, there is a strong emphasis on the concept of sanuk’; the idea that life should be fun. Because of this, Thai can be quite playful at work and during day-to-day activities. Displaying positive emotions in social interactions is also important in Thai culture. Often, the Thai will deal with disagreements, minor mistakes or misfortunes by using the phrase “mai pen rai”, translated as “it doesn’t matter”. The ubiquitous use of this phrase in Thailand reflects a disposition towards minimizing conflict, disagreements or complaints. A smile and the sentence “mai pen rai” indicate that the incident is not important and therefore there is no conflict or shame involved.
Respect for hierarchy is a very important value for Thai people. The custom of bun khun, emphasizes the indebtedness towards parents, as well as towards guardians, teachers and caretakers. It describes the feelings and practices involved in certain relationships organized around generalized reciprocity, the slow-acting accounting of an exchange calculated according to locally interpreted scales and measures. It is also considered extremely rude to step on a Thai coin, because the king’s head appears on the coin.
There are a number of Thai customs relating to the special status of monks in Thai society. Due to religious discipline, Thai monks are forbidden physical contact with women. Women are therefore expected to make way for passing monks to ensure that accidental contact does not occur. A variety of methods are employed to ensure that no incidental contact (or the appearance of such contact) between women and monks occurs. Women making offerings to monks place their donation at the feet of the monk, or on a cloth laid on the ground or a table. Powders or unguents intended to carry a blessing are applied to Thai women by monks using the end of a candle or stick. Lay people are expected to sit or stand with their heads at a lower level than that of a monk. Within a temple, monks may sit on a raised platform during ceremonies to make this easier to achieve.
When sitting in a temple, one is expected to point one’s feet away from images of the Buddha. Shrines inside Thai residences are arranged so as to ensure that the feet are not pointed towards the religious icons—such as placing the shrine on the same wall as the head of a bed, if a house is too small to remove the shrine from the bedroom entirely. It is also customary to remove one’s footwear before entering a home or the sacred areas within a temple, and not to step on the threshold.
Traditional Thai clothing is called chut thai (Thai: ชุดไทย]) which literally means “Thai outfit”. It can be worn by men, women, and children. Chut thai for women usually consists of a pha nung or a chong kraben, a blouse, and a sabai. Northern and Northeastern women may wear a sinh instead of a pha nung and a chong kraben with either a blouse or a suea pat. Chut thai for men includes a chong kraben or pants, a Raj pattern shirt, with optional knee-length white socks and a sabai. Chut thai for Northern Thai men is composed of a sado, a white Manchu styled jacket, and sometimes a khian hua. In formal occasions, people may choose to wear a chut thai phraratchaniyom.