Few countries can claim a landscape of breathtaking diversity, ancient ruins, stunning temples, renowned cuisine, and sincere hospitality. Prathet Thai, or "land of the free," is the only country in Southeast Asia never to have been colonized. Even now, amid the inevitable influence of Western society, the Thai people hold strongly to their uniqueness, and the belief system of an ancient culture. This land of 65 million people is an overwhelming and vibrant clash between the ancient and the modern.
The Kingdom of Thailand lies at the heart of Southeast Asia, bordered by Myanmar to the west, Laos and Cambodia to the east, and Malaysia to the south. Hundreds of beautiful islands line the shore from the Gulf of Thailand to the Andaman Sea. It is a rich, varied country of forested mountains, fertile plains, tropical mangroves, and extensive waterways. In Bangkok, the capital and largest city, skyscrapers, consumer crowds, abundant nightlife, and traffic jams co-exist with saffron-robed monks, gilded temples, colorful tuk-tuks, and elephants.
Within this mélange of old and new, the genuinely friendly Thai people typically display an open, non-judgmental attitude and a deep respect for age and social status. This view is largely shaped by the cornerstones of their culture, the dominant Buddhist religion, and the Thai monarchy.
In recent years, the economy has struggled, recovering slowly from near collapse some ten years ago. The devastating 2004 tsunami on the western Andaman coast killed more than 5,000 and displaced or destroyed the livelihood of so many family businesses and fishermen. Thailand's ongoing economic growth has been slowed, and countrywide, the poorest have been hardest hit.
In recent years, the economy of Thailand has struggled, recovering slowly from near collapse 10 years ago. The 2004 Tsunami killed more than 5,000 and displaced or destroyed the livelihood of so many family businesses. As always, the poorest were the hardest hit. One ongoing social crisis is the Aids epidemic, at critical levels since the 1980's. Since the economic meltdown there has been virtually no government support for Aids patients. Another predicament is the continued marginalization of the indigenous hill tribes of the north. Despite recent efforts by the royal family, these people live in abject poverty and lack adequate education. Anatta continues to work with local organizations toward self-directed growth and improved quality of life.
About 80% of the country's homogeneous population is ethnic Thai. Significant minority groups are represented by Chinese, Malays, and to a lesser extent, Cambodians, Burmese, and Vietnamese. Settlements of indigenous hill tribes inhabit remote northern regions, representing about 2% of the population. These are extremely poor farmers, largely marginalized and lacking adequate government assistance. Unfortunately, many of these people have become attractions in the difficulties the Thais face contending with ever-increasing tourism.
Another sad ethical and moral dilemma has resulted from the tourist sector focusing on the sex industry. The tremendous revenue generated over many years has led to an attitude of tolerance toward prostitution and sex trade. Thailand has been a country facing the AIDS epidemic since the 1980s. Conservative estimates place the number of HIV positive Thais at about one million, or one in every 55 people. Reportedly nine Thais die from AIDS every hour. Since the economic meltdown there has been virtually no government welfare for AIDS patients. In light of recent emphasis on efforts to combat corruption, reforms are slowly evident.
In the 1990s, Thailand became extremely active in public education campaigns for prevention of HIV infection. Low-cost antiretroviral drugs were made readily available at very low cost. Thailand is still, however, a country replete with misconceptions about AIDS. People live in great fear of the disease and shun infected family members for fear of becoming ill themselves. This attitude, combined with a culture of sexually risky behavior, rampant drug use, and insufficient education on the topic, has done little to reduce the numbers of HIV/AIDS sufferers.