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For those who've not been to the country in recent years, the word "Thailand" may evoke thoughts of spicy food, isolated beaches, colorful temples, and rice paddies stretching as far as the eye can see. Yet, while piquant food and jasmine rice remain, Thailand is easily the most westernized of the countries borne of old Indochina. Surrounded by neighbors that were once either British or French colonies, Thailand was never formally occupied by a western power. (I have heard some say that the country has long been an American state. Yet while the influence of America is undeniable, the United States never ruled the country. Thais have largely been the masters of their own fate.) Today, it's an absolute truth that in Thailand one can find Dairy Queen outlets just steps from the verdure of paddies. The king (for good reason) remains the most revered human being in the land, but trailing closely behind are the likes of the Beckhams and Bonos of the world. Thailand today, particularly in the cities, is a rapidly changing combination of old and new.
Thailand is a country of some 65 million people. Its capital and largest city, Bangkok, is home to at least 1 in 8 Thais. Buddhism is the predominant religion, with some 95% of Thais practicing the religion in some form. Of the religious minorities, Islam boasts the largest number of followers, most living in the southern portion of the Thai peninsula. (Although it seldom makes headlines in western countries, Southern Thailand has in recent years suffered from religious violence in its southern provinces. Tension between Muslims and Buddhists in the region has resulted in the loss of many lives.) The country is a constitutional monarchy - and Thais revere their king. Fortunately for the country and its people, the current king - now the longest-reigning monarch in the world - has been a good one. Although his absolute powers are few, the Thai king has not been reduced to mere figurehead. The influence he wields is great; one cannot spend a day in the country without being reminded of his presence (the most unusual reminder being the respectful segment preceding the screening of a movie in any Thai theater).
The country is among the wealthiest in Southeast Asia, its GDP per capita more than triple that of neighbors Laos, Cambodia, and Burma. Thailand boasts a free market fully capable of overreaching its bounds (the Asian economic crisis of the late '90s took its toll), is open to foreign investment, and possesses the most open travel and tourism policies in the region. (That I need not secure a visa or pay a dime to enter the country is partly why I have spent so much time in Thailand whenever I've traveled in Southeast Asia.) The Thai press enjoys great freedom, particularly relative to neighboring countries.
Despite all this, the rapid "westernization" of the country has come at a cost. Traditional culture has been eroded. Old Siam (until 1939, Thailand was known as Siam) is best experienced today in neighboring Laos. Like most countries seeking to modernize, Thailand has been all too eager to discard old for new without fully understanding the consequences. Pollution, crime, urban sprawl, erosion of values, the increasing gap between rich and poor - many of the same problems that face other rapidly developing nations are issues in Thailand as well. Still, there is much for Thais to be proud of, and certain aspects of the culture retain uniqueness and charm.
From a personal perspective, Thailand has been a frequent stop for a variety of reasons. It is because of a friend and former colleague that my first visit to the country was so pain-free. Thais, despite modernization, remain unusually friendly and laid-back. Reason enough to spend time in Thailand is the country's creative cuisine. A fan before visiting, it was with much zest that I dove into a variety of new dishes on arrival in the country. Thai food is generally healthy, inexpensive, and freshly prepared. Bangkok, despite its pollution and chaos, is a convenient and - when you get to know it - comfortable travel hub. With speedy wireless Internet access, air-conditioned coffee houses, foreign embassies and convenient ATMs, Bangkok has all I need for developing Web content and refueling between excursions to neighboring countries. (It also has excellent health care, something I discovered first-hand after returning from Myanmar with a case of amoebic dysentery!)
Among the slideshows I've developed for the site thus far, this one is perhaps the least artistically refined. I have included a number of very ordinary photographs - and have far too many images of children flying kites. That said, the scene at Sanam Luang in front of Bangkok's Grand Palace during the months of March and April is among my favorite in Thailand. When I visit Sanam Luang during other months of the year, I am always disappointed to find the place without children and color and kites. Another subject you'll see a great deal of here is Wat Suthat and its beautiful Buddha image. Wat Suthat is easily my favorite temple in Bangkok, in part because it feels more like a place of spirituality than it does a tourist stop. Beyond that, the show should provide a decent glimpse into 21st century Thailand. Much as I do when home in Seattle, I find myself putting the camera away when I'm in the country. This is not because Thailand is without beauty; rather, it's simply a reflection of how familiar the country has become to me - and perhaps how similar it is to home.
A few useful definitions:
- baht: Thai currency (US $1 = approx. 40 baht)
- the Buddha: Siddhartha Gautama, founder of Buddhism in the 6th century BCE
- Buddha image: any representation (sculpture, painting) of the Buddha or subsequent enlightened being
- chedi: stupa; monument housing a Buddha relic
- doi: mountain
- jataka: stories of the Buddha's previous lives
- phrá: title honoring a monk or Buddha image
- suan: park, large open area outdoors
- wát: temple/monastery
- wíhăan: large hall in a Thai temple
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