Traditions and customs of Thailand

What traditions and customs are there in Thailand?

One of the most touristic countries in the world, customs and traditions of Thailand.


Food in daily life

Rice is the staple food in every meal for most people. All food is brought to the table at once instead of being served on plates. A meal will include rice, sauce dishes, side dishes, soup, and a salad.

While polished white rice is consumed in central and southern Thailand, in the north and northeast people eat glutinous or sticky rice. Fish and shellfish are popular. Curry is consumed throughout the country, but there are regional varieties.

Northern and northeastern food is similar to that of Laos and consists of more meat, including meat served as sausages or as grubs (a salad is usually made from raw meat). Chinese food has influenced the national cuisine, especially when it comes to noodle dishes. Sweets are eaten as snacks. A popular snack is green papaya salad.

In the past, there were marked differences between the food of the common people and that of the nobility. Women from noble households were skilled at decorative carving of vegetables and fruits. In recent decades, this practice has become popular among the middle classes. While commercial alcoholic beverages are common throughout the country, non-commercial alcohol made from rice is still drunk.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

Thailand has a relatively diversified export-oriented economy that grew rapidly in the latter part of the 20th century until the crash of 1997. Manufacturing and tourism led its growth, but agriculture continued to play an important role, employing more than 60 percent of the workforce.

The country remains a major producer and exporter of agricultural products, including rice, rubber, and tapioca. Thailand’s currency is called the baht.


In general, individuals find their own marriage partners, although the choice of a spouse may be influenced by one’s family among the wealthy. The value of the goods provided to the couple and the elaboration of the wedding ceremony vary with the wealth of the couple’s families.

Polygamy was common among the elite in the past, but is now rare, although wealthy and powerful men often have a de facto second wife known as an underage wife. Divorce is not difficult and usually involves one couple no longer living together and dividing their assets.


Thais and other Buddhists follow the widespread Buddhist custom of not touching a person on the head, which is considered the highest part of the body. Hitting a child on the head is believed to be dangerous to their well-being. A person should not point their feet at anyone or at a Buddha image.

Footwear is removed when entering temple complexes, and it is polite to remove footwear when entering a house. Buddhist monks must not come into contact with women. It is traditional to greet a person with a praying gesture called a wai. It is considered inappropriate to lose your temper or show too much emotion in public.


Religious beliefs

About eighty-five percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist, and the monarch must be a Buddhist. Virtually all Taiwanese-speaking peoples are Theravada Buddhists, as are members of many of the ethnic minorities.

Central Tais Buddhism is often referred to as Lankavamsa, reflecting its origins in Sri Lanka. Thai Buddhism, however, is a syncretic religion that borrows from earlier animistic beliefs, Hinduism, and Christianity.

A notable manifestation of animism in Thai Buddhism is the spirit houses associated with almost all houses and buildings. These are usually small model houses set on a plinth, serving as a home for the spirits associated with the site.

These houses are decorated and presented with daily offerings. Many large trees are also considered to be the homes of spirits and are decorated and offerings are given to them.

About ten percent of the population is Muslim, mainly ethnic Malays in the south. Although Christian missionaries have been active in the country since the 19th century, only about one percent of the population is Christian.

The Christian population consists mainly of non-Thai ethnic minorities in the north and the Vietnamese and Chinese. There are a small number of Animists, Confucianists, Taoists, Mahayana Buddhists, and Hindus.

Religious professionals

Most religious practitioners are Buddhist monks. Most of the young men become Buddhist novices and go to live in a monastery. While most young men remain in the monastery for a short time before returning to secular life, some are ordained as monks.

A person who wants to become a monk is expected to be free from debt and certain diseases, to have the permission of his parents or spouse, to agree to follow the disciplinary rules of the monarchy, and not to engage in secular life.

Monks are expected to lead a life of aestheticism, but they commonly serve in important roles in the community, especially as advisers. A variety of religious practitioners are associated with the animistic side of most Buddhists’ religious beliefs, including exorcists, spiritual practitioners, astrologers, and fortune tellers.

Rituals and sacred places

Various Buddhist religious festivals are celebrated throughout the country, and there are local events related to particular places and individuals. The Buddhist religious calendar begins with Songkran, in mid-April, when Buddha images are washed and monks are offered special alms. This celebration is characterized by dousing people with water and festive behavior, including dancing, singing and theatrical performances.

Visakha Puja in May celebrates the birth, enlightenment and entry into nirvana of the Buddha. The day includes the ceremonial watering of the banyan trees which represent the tree under which the Buddha sat when he attained enlightenment. Asanha Puja celebrates a sermon by the Buddha. Khao Phansaa in July marks the start of the three-month Lenten period.

It is at this time that the young men become novices. Lent is considered a period of spiritual retreat for monks, who are expected to stay in monasteries. The Kathin thaw from mid-October to mid-November marks the end of Lent. During this period, monastic robes and other accessories are issued to the monks.

In some communities, there is a celebration to produce new garments for monks and Buddha images in which members of the community work together to produce the cloth in a single day. Magha Puja in February commemorates the Buddha’s preaching to enlightened monks. It culminates with a candlelight procession in the temples.

Death and the afterlife

Buddhists believe that those who die are reborn in a form that is appropriate to the amount of merit they have accumulated in life. The cycle of death and rebirth is believed to continue as long as ignorance and craving persist. The cycle can only be broken through increased personal wisdom and the elimination of desire. Funerals include burial or cremation.

The funeral ceremony includes a procession of monks and mourners accompanying the coffin to the cemetery or crematorium, with chanting by the monks and rites along the way.

Funerals for monks tend to be very elaborate, while people who have died violently are buried quickly, with very little ceremony, as their spirits are believed to linger after death as malevolent ghosts.

Secular celebrations

Most of the celebrations are associated with Buddhism or other religions. The most important secular holidays are related to the monarchy.

Celebrations include Chakkri Day (April 6), which commemorates Rama I, the founder of the Chakri dynasty; Coronation Day (May 5), which commemorates the coronation of the current king; the royal plowing ceremony (second week of May), an ancient ritual held near the Royal Palace in Bangkok to kick off the rice planting season; the queen’s birthday (August 12); Chulalongkorn Day (October 23), celebrated in commemoration of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V); and the current king’s birthday (December 5).

Other secular celebrations include Constitution Day (December 10) and New Year’s Day.

The arts and humanities

Arts support

Support for the arts comes from both the public and private sectors. The Department of Fine Arts funds programs throughout the country, and there is a national theater. Silpakorn University is the leading public educational institution for the arts, and has a National School of Dance and Music.

The Foundation for the Promotion of Occupational and Supplementary Techniques, founded in 1976, is associated with the queen and runs projects across the country for traditional artisans. There are private art galleries, mainly in Bangkok, and private auction houses have become a commercial outlet for paintings.


Written literature dates back to the Sukhothai period (1250-1350) and earlier traditions. The oldest known poem, the Suphasit Phra Ruong, was written in the late 13th century. The Traiphum Khatha (1345) is a treatise on Buddhist cosmology.

15th century poetry includes epics, poems based on the life of the Buddha, and the Lilit Phra Lo, Thailand’s first love story. The reign of King Narai in the 17th century is considered the golden age of Thai literature.

Most of this literary work consisted of epics and love stories written in poetic form. Cau Fa Thamathibet (1715-1755) is famous for the so-called ship songs, which abound in mythical allusions.

In the eighteenth century a new poetic genre emerged, the lakhon. It was a type of theatrical poetry in which the actors positioned themselves before the audience and recited texts derived from the Ramakien (the Thai version of the Ramayana), the Inau (an epic of Javanese origin) and the Anirut tales (which were of more local origin).

King Rama II was a poet, and during his reign epics expanded in scale and performance. There were some famous female poets during this period, including Khun Phum who wrote a poetic eulogy for Rama IV. During the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), written prose emerged and poetry became more realistic. Prince Damrong Ratchanuphap (1861-1947) collected stories from Thai literature.

The modern period has seen the emergence of many new forms of poetry and popular fiction. This fiction is realistic, often portraying the lives of ordinary people and the lower class in the face of adversity.

Although most of the stories are set in central Thailand, there has also been regional literature, such as the Khamphun Bunthami novels, which are set in the northeast. Since the 1970s, much fiction and poetry has focused on social criticism.

Graphic arts

Graphic arts include art forms associated with Buddhist temples, such as wood, stucco, and stone sculpture, mural painting, and bronze castings of Buddha images. Other forms of graphic arts include lacquer, mother-of-pearl inlays, goldsmithing, nielloware, silverware, woodcarving, ceramics, basketry and braiding, weaving, and painting on paper or canvas.

In the Ayutthaya and Bangkok periods, there were distinct royal and common textile traditions. The nobility imported textiles from China, India, and Persia and received special textiles as tribute from neighboring regions. Commoners produced clothing for themselves until the 19th century, when imported cloth became widely available.

Distinct regional styles of weaving still exist, including the production of special hand-woven fabrics for sale to elite customers in urban areas. There are many local, regional and national weaving contests and fairs to promote textiles.

Painting was traditionally done in tempera in the form of murals on the walls of temples, as well as on cloth and paper. While Buddhist themes were predominant, temple murals often included depictions of secular objects.

Artistic styles were initially influenced by Sri Lanka and South India and later by China and the West. King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) imported Western art and artists.

Particularly noteworthy are the realistic painted portraits and statues of prominent personalities. In 1910, King Vajiravudh attempted to revive traditional art, creating the Department of Fine Arts in 1912 and the School of Arts and Crafts in 1913. Italian -born sculpture Corrado Feroci became a central figure in the creation of modern art in Thailand.

As director of the University of Fine Arts (Silpakorn University), he is widely considered the father of modern art in the country. The university held the first National Art Exhibition in 1949, and this annual event became central to defining the state of contemporary art.

Much of the work of modern Thai artists has reflected trends in Europe and North America, but many artists have blended imported styles with themes associated with national culture.

Performing arts

Classical dance developed from folk dances and incorporated elaborate Indian hand gestures and arm and leg movements, probably through the Mon and Khmer cultures. Various forms of dance, including masked dance dramas, are depicted on Sukhôtâi stone inscriptions.

The 18th century is considered the golden age of classical dance and dance theater. Although many Ayutthaya musicians and dancers were forcibly taken to the Burmese royal court in 1767, those who remained taught their traditions to others during Bangkok’s early years.

Classical dance and theater came under attack from leftists in the 1970s because of their links to the aristocracy. When the military returned to power in 1976, they promoted classical art forms.

In 1977, the military regime held a national dance and theater festival that included classical forms and patriotic plays that glorified the country’s past. In recent years, classical, folk and modern dance and theater have been popular.

Folk dances are regional in nature. Each dance style is accompanied by different musical instruments. Dances in the central region have been influenced by court traditions.

Southern dances have been influenced by Sri Lankan and South Indian styles. Individual dance styles are associated with many of the ethnic minorities.

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