Last updated on May 17, 2023
In the early days of A Little Adrift I used to have a page on the site completely dedicated to the fun facts and tidbits I discovered in each new country. I called the page “Strangeness” and it hosted the raw, unfiltered and seemingly meaningless quirky facts that rarely make it into my travel stories. I was new to travel and everything around surprised and delighted me. I filled the Australia page with things like: Note to self, brekkie=breakfast and thongs=sandals, not ladies underwear. Incredibly useful stuff there, I know. ;-)
And when I landed in Thailand and lived in Chiang Mai for quite some time, I collected a number of time to look at fun facts you should know about Thailand—in general, and as a traveler heading that way! These range from the interesting to the random to the straight up quirky.
Fun Facts About Thailand
Before I travel through any new place I read up on the history. And while far from scholarly, Wikipedia is my go-to source. Thailand’s Wikipedia entry gives a great overview of each facet of Thai history, geography, economy, etc. Also, I actively veer away from stereotypes and gross generalizations about a country, but that being said, take this as a fun and not-authoritative-at-all list. :)
Wait, Before We Get Started, Where is Thailand?
For a quick geography lesson, Thailand is smack dab in the middle of Southeast Asia and bordered by four countries: Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia. And because of its location, Thailand’s culture and history are heavily influenced from India and China.
1. You’ll need both a spoon and a fork for that dish!
Thai people eat most dishes with a spoon in their dominant hand and forks easily leverage food onto the spoon. This comes in handy because Thai food is so tasty, and when I’m using a spoon it’s a lot easier to shovel food into my mouth! Of note is the fact that chopsticks are really only used for eating soups, otherwise you can mostly expect your dish served with a spoon and/or fork.
2. For the perfect dessert, just look for ice cream and white bread!
Desserts are of a different ilk here, and one of the more popular desserts is ice cream sandwiched between a piece (or two) of white bread. They don’t traditionally eat bread with meals (that’s what the rice is for), and bread is most often served sweet. Yum! Seriously, don’t knock bread and ice cream ‘til you’ve tried it. It was an odd combination, and I have never craved it again, but I’m glad I sampled it once in my life!
3. When in doubt, they’ll probably just add condensed milk.
Condensed milk is a staple here so it seems, it’s sold on the shelf of every 7-11 and Tesco Lotus and the syrupy sweet flavor compliments both drinks and desserts. Thai food often has a sweet component to it (they sugar their food with table sugar!) and the near obsession here with condensed milk is another facet of that sweet tooth!
4. Known as “The Land of Smiles,” Thailand delivers on the promise.
Thailand’s tourism pushes the image that the country is the “land of smiles” and this is mostly true. Thais generally prefer harmony over open social conflict so it’s rare to get into altercations on the streets and I find the vendors and locals regularly offer up warm smiles and greetings. It’s also worth noting though, that smiling is the default reaction for Thais in a range of situations very different from the West. For example, a smile from a Thai person can show their personal embarrassment, or they smile to relieve your personal embarrassment, smiles come out of fear, remorse, and even tension. It varies – so yes, everyone is smiling, but it not always because they’re happy! :)
5. The wai is necessary—and brush up on Thai social protocols.
Many Asian cultures have a different social hierarchy in place and Thailand is no exception. The hierarchy is present within families, friendships, and nearly all social situations. The most pronounced manifestation of this is the wai, a gesture of raised, clasped hands in front of your body. A person’s relationship to you, age, and their “status,” for lack of a better word, defines how low you should bow your head when giving a wai in greeting and thanks.
6. Toy pet accessories are definitely a thing.
Many Thai people cart around the tiny, fluffy, yappy dogs and perch them in purses, and on their motorbikes. Excluding the motorbike phenomenon, it’s equally baffling to see this same trend in the U.S.
7. Bangkok has the longest city name in the world.
The full name written out is:
Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit.
Try saying that ten times fast!
8. Thai is the official language in Thailand, but it’s one of many spoken there.
Besides hearing Thai in the predominantly Thai areas, you will also hear Lao, Chinese, Malay, Khmer, Akha, and Karen. And that’s just to start, many other smaller ethnic groups have their own distinct languages and cultures, depending on where in Thailand you travel!
9. The name “Thailand” is a relatively new addition to the country’s long history.
Until this century, Thailand was actually called Siam throughout history; the name changed to Thailand in 1939.
10. Thai people are fiercely proud.
Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized by a European power. That was quite a feat since Europeans colonized seemingly everywhere for a good while and there was a lot of French influence in other countries in the region. But Thai people are rightly proud their culture and food remains free of the colonial cultural influences rampant in Laos and Vietnam.
11. The Kingdom of Thailand is a constitutional monarchy.
Thailand is home to the world’s longest continuous monarchy, with the current king, King Vajiralongkorn, being the 10th king in the Chakri Dynasty, which has ruled the country since 1782.
12. Thai people respect the monarchy.
Thailand is among the most populated constitutional monarchies in the world and it has a King. The long reigning, late Bhumibol Adulyadej was well-loved and respected throughout Thailand. His son took over in 2016, and the situation has been a lot rockier. That said, sarcasm and levity concerning the King is not appreciated or allowed—it’s against the law to disrespect or criticize the royal family.
13. U.S. politics don’t hold a candle to the complexities of Thai politics.
The Thai political situation is very, very complex and nuanced and there are many people better suited to explaining Thai politics than myself. To understand Thai politics, start here.
14. Pick most any given day, and it’s probably a holiday in Thailand.
Okay, that’s not entirely true, but it does feel like it! I always take note of upcoming holidays and ask around before planning anything big just to ensure I don’t get to a temple/park/shop/event and find everything closed! There are major national holidays, and then regional ones, too. There’s seemingly always something festive and fun happening.
15. The country is deeply spiritual and Buddhism is the main religion.
More than 90 percent of the population Buddhist. And let me tell you, you can tell when traveling through because there are wats (temples), Buddha statues, and mini offerings everywhere.
16. Bangkok is home to a buddha statue worth a staggering $250 million U.S.
Phra Phuttha Maha Suwana Patimakon, also known as the Golden Buddha, is a highly revered Buddhist artifact and national symbol of Thailand. It is a large, solid-gold statue of a seated Buddha, weighing over 5.5 tons with an estimated value of $250 million.
The Golden Buddha is housed in the Temple of the Golden Buddha (Wat Traimit) in Bangkok, which is a popular tourist attraction. The temple is also an important center for Buddhist study and worship, and it is a popular place for Buddhists to make offerings and pray.
17. There is an abundance of natural beauty.
Thailand’s national parks are home to populations of wild elephants, tigers, and gibbons, among other notable species. Some of the more popular parks to visit include Khao Yai National Park and Erawan National Park.
18. Thais stop and pay respects twice a day during the national anthem.
In Thailand, the national anthem, “Phleng Chat,” is played twice a day at 8:00 AM and 6:00 PM. It is played on television and radio stations, as well as at public events and ceremonies.
The national anthem is played in its entirety, and it is expected that people will stand at attention and show respect while it is being played. It is also customary for people to stop what they are doing and stand at attention when the national anthem is played in public places, such as shopping malls, airports, and other public spaces.
The national anthem of Thailand was composed by Peter Feit (also known as Phra Jenduriyang), a German-born musician who was commissioned by King Rama VI to write a national anthem for Thailand. It was first played publicly in 1932, and it was officially adopted as the national anthem of Thailand in 1939. The lyrics of the national anthem celebrate the beauty and majesty of Thailand, and call on the people of Thailand to work together to defend and protect their country.
19. The national anthem also plays before every movie in the movie theatre!
It’s customary for the national anthem to play before movies in theaters. It is expected that moviegoers will stand at attention and show respect while the national anthem is being played.
The national anthem is also played before other public events and ceremonies, such as sporting events and concerts—attendees also stand at attention and show respect while the national anthem is being played.
20. Bring slip on shoes so you can easily take them off indoors.
It’s considered impolite to wear shoes inside homes, temples, and other sacred places in Thailand. It is also considered impolite to point the soles of your feet at someone, as the feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body in Thai culture.
21. The head is sacred in Thai culture.
In Thai culture, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body, and it is considered a cultural faux pas to touch someone’s head without permission. To that end, the left hand is considered unclean, and it’s also a no-no to use your left hand to touch someone, hand something to someone, or accept something from someone.
22. Don’t cause a public confrontation, it’s incredibly disrespectful.
In Thai culture, “saving face” is an important concept that refers to the avoidance of embarrassing or compromising situations that could cause someone to lose face or social standing.
In Thai culture, it is important to maintain a positive image and to avoid situations that could cause shame or embarrassment. This often involves avoiding confrontation or criticism, and instead finding subtle or indirect ways to communicate or resolve conflicts.
In Thai culture, saving face is often more important than expressing one’s true feelings or opinions, and people may go to great lengths to avoid causing others to lose face. This can sometimes lead to misunderstandings or conflicts with people from cultures where more direct communication is the norm.
23. “Mai pen rai” means so much more than “no worries.”
Although travelers interpret this phrase as a amalgamation of “no worries,” “nevermind,” and “what will be, will be,” the cultural significance is so much deeper than an English speaker can immediately grasp. Mai pen rai is actually rooted in the idea of saving face, and wrapped up with deep-seated Buddhist beliefs. Here’s a deeper look at mai pen rai. Any way you slice it though, prepare to hear this phrase a lot!
24. There are more than 70 ethnic groups living in Thailand.
There are many ethnic groups in Thailand—70 by most counts—including Thai, Chinese, Malay, and Lao, as well as several hill tribes. The largest group is the Thai, who make up the majority of the population. The Chinese, who have lived in Thailand for generations, form the largest minority group. Other groups include the Malay, who mostly live in the southern part of the country, and the Lao, who inhabit the northeastern region known as Isan.
There are also several hill tribes, in Thailand, including the Hmong, Karen, Akha, and Mien. The Hmong are an ethnic group that originated in the mountains of China, but many have migrated to Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia. The Karen are another large hill tribe group in Thailand, and they have a long history of conflict with the Thai government. The Akha are a smaller hill tribe group who are known for their distinctive dress and traditional beliefs. The Mien, also known as the Yao, are another hill tribe group that can be found in Thailand, as well as in China, Laos, and Vietnam.
Hill tribes in Thailand have often faced challenges, including discrimination and poverty, and they have sometimes been the subject of conflict with the Thai government. But these groups have their own distinct cultures, traditions, and languages, and many of them have migrated to Thailand from other countries in the region. Go off-the-path to explore these unique ethnic groups and hill tribe cultures for a truly memorable trip.
25. Thai culuture is generally quite superstitious.
There are many superstitions and beliefs in Thai culture that are based on Buddhist and animist traditions. Here are a few examples:
- Cats: In Thai culture, cats are seen as good luck charms, and it is believed that they bring good fortune to those who take care of them.
- Spirit houses: In many homes and businesses in Thailand, there is a small shrine called a “spirit house,” which is believed to be the home of the spirits that protect the property. It is customary to make offerings of food, drink, and other items to the spirits in the spirit house.
- Black cats: Black cats are seen as good luck charms in Thai culture, and it is believed that they bring good fortune and prosperity to those who own them.
- Elephants: Elephants are seen as symbols of good luck and prosperity in Thai culture, and they are often depicted in art and other cultural symbols.
- Ghost month: In Thai culture, it is believed that during the seventh lunar month (called “Ghost Month”), the gates of hell open and ghosts are able to roam the earth. Pulled from Chinese folklore, it’s customary to make offerings to the ghosts during this time to appease them and prevent them from causing harm—and there are even festivals to celebrate.
26. Thai dishes always hit all of the major flavor notes.
Thai cuisine is known for its balance of salty, sweet, spicy, and sour flavors, which is achieved through the use of a wide variety of ingredients.
Salty flavors in Thai cuisine are often achieved through the use of fish sauce, soy sauce, and oyster sauce, which are commonly used as condiments or added to dishes during cooking. Sweet flavors in Thai cuisine are often achieved through the use of sugar, honey, and coconut milk, which are commonly used in desserts and sweetened drinks, as well as in savory dishes such as curries and stir-fries.
Spicy flavors in Thai cuisine are often achieved through the use of chili peppers and a variety of spicy herbs and spices, such as lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and galangal. Sour flavors in Thai cuisine are often achieved through the use of lime juice, tamarind, and vinegar, which are commonly used to add tartness to dishes.
The combination of these flavors is what gives Thai cuisine its unique and distinctive taste, and it is a key aspect of the cuisine’s popularity around the world. When you’re eating in Thailand, you’ll always have a condiment caddy nearby so you can tweak these four flavor profiles to your liking.
When I looked around me over the past week (eek! It’s been a full week here!!) these are some of the fun facts about Thailand and random things I have found along the way and that have jogged my memories from past travels. It’s far from comprehensive, and my niece has been the one to point out several of the oddities to me now that she’s here (she likes the tiny dogs in particular), but it’s always something new and intriguing here on a daily, if not hourly basis. :)
27. Thailand’s national sport is known as “the art of eight limbs.”
Muay Thai, also known as Thai boxing, is the national sport of Thailand. It is a martial art that incorporates punches, kicks, knee strikes, and elbow strikes.
28. Thailand has more than 1,400 islands.
The Thai islands offer stunning beaches and clear turquoise waters. Some of the famous ones include Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, and Koh Samui. These beaches are just a few of the famous ones, but with Thailand has a coastline that stretches approximately 3,219 kilometers (2,000 miles) in length—so you know there are more gorgeous ones to find! The coastline borders the Gulf of Thailand to the east and the Andaman Sea to the west.
29. Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of rice.
Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of jasmine rice, known for its fragrant aroma and delicate flavor, which is highly sought after by rice lovers worldwide.
30. Thailand has one of the most complex writing systems in the world.
The Thai alphabet has 44 consonants and 32 vowels. And as a tonal language it’s essentially impossible to learn—I say that tongue-in-cheek. Of course you can learn it, but I’ve tried and it’s hard!
Traveled in Thailand or dreaming of traveling there? What fascinates you most about the country?
A guide to everything I learned while backpacking and living in Thailand. From Chiang Mai to the Thai Islands—and a lot in between—here’s where to go, my favorite places, and everything you should know before you go.