With over nine million foreigners flying into the country each year, Thailand has become Asias primary holiday destination. Yet despite this vast influx of tourists and their cash, Thailands cultural integrity remains largely undamaged a country that adroitly avoided colonization has been able to absorb Western influences without wholly succumbing to them. Though the high-rises and neon lights occupy the foreground of the tourist picture, the typical Thai community is still the traditional farming village. Over fifty percent of Thais earn their living from the land, based around the staple, rice, which forms the foundation of the countrys unique and famously sophisticated cuisine.
Tourism has been just one factor in the countrys development which, once the deep-seated regional uncertainties surrounding the Vietnam War had faded, was free to proceed at an almost death-defying pace. Indeed Thailand enjoyed the fastest-expanding economy in the world, at an average of nine percent growth a year, until it overstretched itself in 1997, sparking a regional financial crisis but already, with remarkable resilience, the economys growing again. Politics in Thailand, however, has not been able to keep pace. Coup détâts, which used to be the commonest method of changing government, seem to be a thing of the past, but despite a recently revised constitution and robust criticism from students, grass-roots activists and parts of the press, the malnourished democratic system is characterized by corruption and cronyism.
Through all the changes of the last half-century, the much-revered constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol, who sits at the pinnacle of an elaborate hierarchical system of deference covering the whole of Thai society, has lent a large measure of stability. Furthermore, over ninety percent of the population are still practising Theravada Buddhists, a unifying faith which colours all aspects of daily life from the tiered temple rooftops that dominate every skyline, to the omnipresent saffron-robed monks and the packed calendar of festivals; it is still the norm for a Thai man to spend three months as a monk at some period during his life....Continua