Thailand's population of just over 65 million people is divided between expansive metropolitan cities and quiet rural regions, but one factor remains constant throughout the country: sanuk. This is the philosophy that life should be fun. Smiles, laughs, and a general levity abound in the southeastern Asian nation because sanuk is a part of daily life here. Despite this quirky attitude, Thailand still maintains a respect for its history and religion. Around 95% of Thais consider themselves a sect of Buddhism—a religion that is so widely practiced that Thai men are expected to commit at least three months of their lives to be Buddhist monks.
This preservation of religion may be due to the lack of western influence in Thailand, which is the only southeastern Asian nation that has never been colonized by a western society. Siam, as Thailand was known until the 20th century, saw a series of kingdoms and dynasties throughout its vast history—from the 13th century Sukhothai Kingdom, which is thought to be the nation’s first kingdom, to the Chakri Dynasty, which has been ruling over Thailand since the 17th century. With a constitutional monarchy still in place, Thailand holds on to its historical roots.
Most Popular Films
Films featuring Thailand from international, independent filmmakers
What to see and do in Bangkok
Witness both the chaos and the tradition of Bangkok as you're taken through some favorite hotspots of locals.Courtesy CNN
Sa Wad Dee Thailand
See why Thailand is called the "Land of Smiles" as you get a glimpse at the local lifestyle.Produced by Curtis Woodbury
More "Bang" for your buck
Set off for an adventure around Bangkok, where you'll bargain at an outdoor market and take a wild ride on a tuk tuk.
Earth Diaries - Thai Dance
A Thai dance instructor reveals the gestures, costumes—and even body types—that are part of this national tradition.Produced by Cynthia Younker
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Immerse yourself in Thailand with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
Discover why Thailand has tiny, embellished, house-like structures sprinkled throughout the country.
Bring the spices and herbs of Southeast Asia into your kitchen with this recipe for lemongrass chicken.
Not sure what to do when visiting a Buddhist temple? Here are seven disrespectful acts you should avoid.
Discover the significance of Buddhist acts and ideas—like karma—that determine your fate in this life and the next.
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Thai Spirit Houses
Keeping Animism alive in Thailand’s front yards
by Andrea Calabretta, for O.A.T.
Though 95 percent of Thai people identify as Buddhists, many of their unique spiritual traditions spring from a long history of Animism.
Walk along any street in Thailand—be it an alleyway in Bangkok or a rural road in the countryside—and you’re sure to see tiny, ornate structures like dollhouses or birdhouses perched atop pedestals. These miniature buildings are known as san phra phum, or “spirit houses.”
Their purpose is exactly what the name suggests: dwelling places for the spirits of the dead, as well as the celestial beings that inhabit the land, air, and trees. Though 95 percent of Thai people identify as Buddhists, many of their unique spiritual traditions spring from a long history of Animism.
Over time, animist rituals have become intertwined with Buddhist and even Hindu practices to create a religion quite distinct from, for instance, Theravada Buddhism as it is practiced in Sri Lanka. As a result, most Thai office buildings, homes, bars, restaurants, and other businesses have corresponding spirit houses. In a city like Bangkok, with more than six million people, this can get a little crowded. You’ll even find spirit houses right beside Buddhist temples—the idea being that if the spirits have a place of their own to dwell, they won’t need to come into the temple to make mischief.
When a new building is constructed, a spiritual advisor must be called in to consult on the exact position of a house for the spirits displaced by the building. The shadow of the main structure must never reach it, and its architectural design and degree of grandeur should be on par with those of the main building. Another expert does the work of actually constructing the spirit house, often from teak wood, which is indigenous to Thailand. And once it is built, the owners host an elaborate housewarming party for it—presided over by monks who bless the spirit house and sometimes loop a string from it to the main house to symbolize their connection. If the owner neglects to hold a proper celebration, he or she may be the victim of unhappy spirits, who can cause misfortunes like marital disputes, financial ruin, fires, robberies, and even death.
Families keep the spirits appeased with regular offerings, which are placed on the tiny balcony that surrounds the house. These might include sticks of incense, flower garlands, bowls of rice, bananas, tea, bottles of Fanta, sweets—and even small figures to act as servants to the spirits and carved wooden elephants so they can travel. And it’s of utmost importance that the food items be prepared especially for the spirits—never leftovers from the family meal.
Passersby may stop to wai (bow with the hands pressed together in prayer position) before the spirit house as a sign of reverence, particularly at places like schools or airports, where the spirits might influence a score on an exam or a safe journey. In fact, a traditional spirit house even stands at the ultramodern international airport in Bangkok—just so travelers can stop to pay their respects.
Keeping Animism alive in Thailand’s front yards
Market-Fresh Flavors from Southeast Asia
from Harriet's Corner
There’s nothing like a good stroll through Southeast Asia’s colorful markets. One of my favorite things to do is admire the fragrant spices, herbs, and exotic (at least to us!) fruits and vegetables, sampling as I wander. It always makes me think about re-creating the flavors of this region at home—and thankfully, many of these ingredients are becoming available more widely in grocery stores Stateside. Here is a recipe for delectable lemongrass chicken from top-rated Trip Leader Panu Apasat.
1 lb. skinless, boneless chicken breast, cubed
2 stalks lemongrass
2 small red chilies (or to taste), finely minced
1 tsp. sugar
3 Tbs. nuoc mam (fish sauce)
3 Tbs. vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup chicken broth
Salt and pepper
Optional: chopped cilantro leaves, sliced scallions, chopped peanuts
- Remove the tough outer leaves from the lemongrass. Trim off the bulbous root end and the dark green portion of the stalk (this can be saved to flavor soups and stews). With a sharp knife, finely chop the yellow portion of the stalk.
- Combine the cubed chicken with chopped lemongrass, chilies, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and allow to marinate at least an hour.
- Heat oil in a wok or heavy skillet. Add chicken and stir-fry until almost cooked through, about one minute on medium-high heat or until lightly browned.
- Add nuoc mam and broth. Cover and simmer until liquid is reduced and chicken is cooked through, about 5 minutes.
- Season to taste with nuoc mam or salt. Garnish with cilantro, scallions, or peanuts (or all three), and serve over steamed white rice or noodles.
7 Things You Should Never Do in a Buddhist Temple
by Maryclaire Dugre
From Bangkok’s glittering Grand Palace to the stone spires of Angkor Wat, Southeast Asia’s temples are stunning in scale and complexity. But even more intricate than the bejeweled stupas is the unique code of conduct for temple-goers. Here’s what not to do at a Buddhist place of worship:
1. Wear shoes or a hat
Always remove your shoes and hat before entering the main worship area—look where others have dropped theirs, and add yours to the pile.
Temple tip: Wear slip-on flats or no-fuss sandals for easy removal.
2. Show too much skin
Even in sweltering Southeast Asia, Buddhists dress conservatively, especially at religious sites. Avoid shorts, sleeveless tops, and dresses or skirts that fall above the knee. If you forget, many temples will lend you a cover-up, sometimes for a small fee.
Wardrobe win: For women, a scarf or shawl is a versatile travel essential. In a bind, it can be draped over your shoulders or tied as a long skirt.
3. Touch the Buddha
Buddha statues can be dazzling, alluring works of art, but be sure to appreciate them with your eyes, not your hands. Getting too close or leaning on the platform is also a sign of disrespect.
Buddha boundaries: Unsure of how close you can get? Take your cue from the monks or worshippers around you—never walk in front of them while they’re praying.
Pointing at people or things is considered rude in many Asian cultures. In a temple, it’s an even graver offense when the subject is a monk, nun, elder, or the Buddha statue itself.
The proper point: To gesture at something, extend your right hand with the palm facing upwards. When sitting, tuck your feet under you or angle them away from the Buddha.
5. Touch or hand something to a monk (women)
Women should never touch, get too close, or pass something to a monk. At the slightest brush against their robes, a monk must perform a cleansing ritual (even if the woman is his mother).
Monk manners: If you’d like to make an offering to a monk, pass it first to a man or set it down before him.
6. Kill an insect
For a Buddhist, purposely destroying a living being—even a creepy crawler—promises bad karma. Try to wave away (rather than kill) any that buzz by you in a temple.
Brush away the bugs: When you see a monk sweeping the entrance stairs, chances are he’s not tidying the temple—he’s brushing away—and protecting—any insects that may be trampled by visitors.
7. Snap a photo without permission
Many temples do allow photography—but always confirm before using your camera. Never take a photo of the Buddha statue during worship, and as a general rule, turn your flash off.
A thoughtful thank you: After taking your photos, making a small donation is always appreciated (but not mandatory).
How the meaning of karma influences Buddhists in Southeast Asia
Lyette Mercier, for O.A.T.
If you do good you will receive good; if you do evil you will receive evil.
— Thai proverb
Making merit—doing good—is a vital part of Buddhist life in Southeast Asia, and the proverb above elegantly illustrates why. In Buddhist teaching, you accumulate merit throughout your life to bring future happiness, strength, and peace—and to carry it into your next life.
Making merit, giving alms
In Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, where the majority of the population is Buddhist, the most common form of merit-making is giving alms to Buddhist monks, who take to the streets each morning in their bright saffron robes holding “begging bowls” into which people can place goods. The most common gift is food, but flowers, money, soap, and other goods useful to the monastery are also accepted. The amount of merit a giver receives is determined by many variables. First, the giver must have pure intentions, a clear mind, and not give anything that is not theirs to give. The quality of the gift also contributes to the merit received. Home-cooked foods are more merit-worthy than ones bought pre-prepared, and giving your leftovers to the monks is considered both rude and unworthy of merit. Finally, the more observant the monk being given alms (with the most observant perfectly obeying all 227 precepts of Buddhism), the more merit granted the giver.
In daily life, people can also gain merit through honoring others, offering help and service, involving others in good deeds, and being thankful for others’ good deeds. This focus on aiding and appreciating the people around you shows in the friendliness and spirit of fellowship among the people of Southeast Asia. After all, when you can bring a bit of good into your current or future life simply by smiling at a stranger or acknowledging a kindness, why not make a habit of it?
Candles for good eyesight
Of course, Buddhists understand that they may not see the results of their merit in this life and generally do not expect immediate results from their good deeds. But certain types of gifts are sometimes thought to accumulate specific kinds of merit for a giver’s next life. For example, giving textbooks to children is said to ensure that you will be intelligent in your next life, and offering candles or lights will give you bright eyes and good eyesight. Merit can also be “transferred” to the person of the giver’s choosing (often a deceased loved one) to lessen that person’s suffering in their next life.
Holidays and festivals provide opportunities for celebratory merit-making. The birthday of Thailand’s king, for example, is celebrated annually with ceremonies in which citizens give alms to monks on behalf of the king, donating the accumulated merit to the monarch as a birthday gift. Another common form of birthday merit-making is to release fish. The tradition stems from saving creatures stranded in rice paddies by receding floods. In the coastal province of Samut Prakan, one million shrimp were released into the river for the king’s birthday in 2011.
The practice of gaining merit stems from the Buddhist concept of karma, which means “doing.” Everything a person does, says, and thinks is a karma, and the accumulation of good and bad karma influences both this life and the next. Two stories from the Buddha’s life form the basis of the tradition. In the first tale, two merchants came upon the newly-enlightened Buddha and were so impressed by his virtue that they spontaneously gave him their provisions. The second story tells of the Buddha carrying a begging bowl as he traveled, with those who passed giving him food and goods so that he could continue to spread his teachings.
Almost 2,500 years later, the Buddha’s lessons of kindness, giving, and gaining merit continue to have a profound influence on the actions and culture of people throughout Southeast Asia.