Bangkok, population 8 million
Nonthaburi, population 265,000
Pak Kret, population 175,000
Hat Yai, population 158,000
Chiang Mai, population 146,000
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy under the beloved king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has reigned since 1946. King Bhumibol is the world's longest-serving head of state. Thailand's current Prime Minister is Yingluck Shinawatra, who assumed office as the first ever female in that role on August 5, 2011.
Thailand's official language is Thai, a tonal language from the Tai-Kadai family of East Asia. Thai has a unique alphabet derived from the Khmer script, which is itself descended from the Brahmic Indian writing system. Written Thai first appeared around 1292 A.D.
Commonly used minority languages in Thailand include Lao, Yawi (Malay), Teochew, Mon, Khmer, Viet, Cham, Hmong, Akhan and Karen.
Thailand's estimated population as of 2007 was 63,038,247. The population density is 317 people per square mile.
The vast majority are ethnic Thais, who make up about 80% of the population. There is also a large ethnic Chinese minority, comprising about 14% of the population. Unlike the Chinese in many neighboring Southeast Asian countries, the Sino-Thai are well-integrated into their communities. Other ethnic minorities include the Malay, Khmer, Mon, and Vietnamese. Northern Thailand also is home to small mountain tribes such as the Hmong, Karen, and Mein, with a total population of less than 800,000.
Thailand is a deeply spiritual country, with 95% of the population belonging to the Theravada branch of Buddhism. Visitors will see gold-spired Buddhist stupas scattered all across the country.
Muslims, mostly of Malay origin, make up 4.5% of the population. They are located primarily in the far south of the country, in the provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and Songkhla Chumphon.
The Thai coastline stretches for 3,219 km along both the Gulf of Thailand on the Pacific side, and the Andaman Sea on the Indian Ocean side. The west coast was devastated by the Southeast Asian tsunami in December of 2004, which swept across the Indian Ocean from its epicenter off Indonesia.
The highest point in Thailand is Doi Inthanon, at 2,565 meters (8,415 feet). The lowest point is the Gulf of Thailand, at sea level.
Thailand's weather is ruled by the tropical monsoons, with a rainy season from June through October, and a dry season beginning in November. Average annual temperatures are a high of 38° C (100° F), with a low of 19° C (66° F). The mountains of northern Thailand tend to be much cooler and somewhat drier than the central plain and coastal regions.
Thailand's "Tiger Economy" was humbled by the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, when the GDP growth rate plummeted from +9% in 1996 to -10% in 1998. Since then, Thailand has recovered well, with growth at a manageable 4-7%.
The Thai economy depends mainly on automotive and electronics manufacturing exports (19%), financial services (9%), and tourism (6%). About half of the workforce is employed in the agriculture sector, and Thailand is the world's top exporter of rice. The country also exports processed foods like frozen shrimp, canned pineapple, and canned tuna.
Thailand's currency is the baht.
Modern humans first settled the area that is now Thailand in the Paleolithic Era, perhaps as early as 100,000 years ago. For up to 1 million years prior to the arrival of Homo sapiens, the region was home to Homo erectus such as Lampang Man, whose fossilized remains were discovered in 1999.
As Homo sapiens moved in to Southeast Asia, they began to develop appropriate technologies: watercraft for navigating the rivers, intricate woven fish nets, etc. People also domesticated plants and animals, including rice, cucumbers and chickens. Small settlements grew up around fertile land or rich fishing spots, and developed into the first kingdoms.
The early kingdoms were ethnically Malay, Khmer, and Mon. Regional rulers vied with one another for resources and land, but all were displaced when the Thai people immigrated into the area from southern China.
Around the 10th century A.D. ethnic Thais invaded, fighting off the governing Khmer empire and establishing the Sukhothai Kingdom (1238-1448), and its rival, the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351-1767). Over time, the Ayutthaya grew more powerful, subjecting the Sukhothai and dominating most of southern and central Thailand.
In 1767, an invading Burmese army sacked the Ayutthaya capital and divided up the kingdom. The Burmese held central Thailand for only two years before they were defeated in turn by the Siamese leader General Taksin. Taksin soon went mad, and was replaced by Rama I, the founder of the Chakri dynasty with continues to rule Thailand today. Rama I moved the capital to its present site at Bangkok.
During the nineteenth century, the Chakri rulers of Siam watched European colonialism sweep across neighboring countries of Southeast and Southern Asia. Burma and Malaysia became British, while the French took Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Siam alone, through skilled royal diplomacy and internal strength, was able to fend off colonization.
In 1932, the military forces staged a coup d'etat that transformed the country into a constitutional monarchy. Nine years later, the Japanese invaded the country, inciting the Thais to attack and take Laos from the French. Following Japan's defeat in 1945, the Thais were forced to return the land they'd taken.
The current monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, came to the throne in 1946 after the mysterious shooting death of his older brother. Since 1973, power has moved from military to civilian hands repeatedly.