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... is politically divided. For several years, three major political parties were at violent odds with one another: the TRT, the PPP, and the PAD. In 2005, when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of the populist Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party was found guilty of tax evasion, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) led demonstrations against him. In 2006 Thaksin was overthrown in a bloodless military coup and fled to London with his wife. A general election in 2007 brought in the People's Power Party (PPP), a civilian government let by Samak Sundaravej. The TRT was banned the same year. But some Thais believed Thaksin still controlled the new government, and PAD demonstrations resumed. In August 2008 demonstrators occupied Government House; in September the government declared a state of emergency and Samak was forced to step down. PPP member Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother-in-law, replaced Samak but protests continued. In November PAD protesters shut down Bangkok's international airport—a blow to tourism and the economy. The following month the courts removed Somchai from power, ruled that the PPP was guilty of electoral fraud, and ordered the PPP and two affiliated parties to dissolve. In mid-December Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party became prime minister. The worst riots in nearly two decades broke out in April and May 2010, when the anti-government "Red Shirts" staged protests across Bangkok. For weeks business and politics remained at a standstill until the military crushed the protests. Hundreds of people were killed and injured as central Bangkok became a war zone. Nothing was resolved. Protesters went home but vowed to continue their fight against the government. In July 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of Thaksin, led the Pheu Thai Party to victory and became Prime Minister. She has not had a smooth ride. Sporadic protests continue, sometimes erupting into further street violence.

... is ethnically diverse. Throughout its history, Thailand has absorbed countless cultural influences, and is home to groups with Chinese, Tibetan, Lao, Khmer, Malaysian, Burmese, and other origins. Migrating tribes from modern-day China, Cambodia, Myanmar, and the Malay Peninsula were the region's earliest inhabitants. Ancient trade routes meant constant contact with merchants traveling from India, China, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Conflicts and treaties have continued to alter the country's borders—and ethnicity—into the 20th century. Contemporary Thailand's cultural richness comes from its ethnic diversity. Though Buddhism is the predominant religion, Hindu and animist influences abound, and there's a significant Muslim population in the south. Malay is spoken in the southern provinces; Lao and Khmer dialects of Thai are spoken in the northeast; and the hill tribes have their own dialects as well.

... is steeped in mysticism. Many Thais believe in astrology and supernatural energy. The animist element of Thai spirituality dictates that everything, from buildings to trees, has a spirit. With so many spirits and forces out there, it's no surprise that appeasing them is a daily consideration. Thais often wear amulets blessed by monks to ward off evil, and they believe that tattoos, often of real or mythical animals or magic spells, bring strength and protect the wearer. Car license plates with lucky numbers (such as multiple nines) sell for thousands of baht; important events, such as weddings, house moves, and even births, are arranged, when possible, to fall on auspicious days, which are either divined by shamans or consist of lucky numbers. Newspapers solemnly report that politicians have consulted their favorite astrologers before making critical policy decisions. Businesses erect shrines to powerful deities outside their premises, sometimes positioned to repel the power of their rivals' shrines.

... is fun-loving. Thais are guided by a number of behavior principles. Many, such as jai yen (cool heart) and mai pen rai (never mind), are rooted in the Buddhist philosophies of detachment, and result in a nonconfrontational demeanor and an easygoing attitude. Perhaps most important of all is sanuk (fun). Thais believe that every activity should be fun—work, play, even funerals. Of course, this isn't always practical, but it's a worthy aim. Thais enjoy being together in large parties, making lots of noise, and—as sanuk nearly always involves food—eating. With their emphasis on giving and sharing, these activities also reflect elements of Buddhist teaching; being generous is an act of merit making, a way of storing up points for protection in this life and in future lives.

What's Hot in Thailand Now

Sophisticated Thai architects and designers, historically obsessed with European classical forms, are increasingly turning to their own heritage for inspiration. Hip new hotels and restaurants are now choosing contemporary indigenous fabrics and traditional painted ceramics, not faux Doric columns and Louis XIV furniture.

Young Thais love all things Japanese. Teenagers lounging in Bangkok's Siam Square and other hangouts around the country are filling breaks from school with Japanese comics and tapping their feet to J-Pop, the latest hits from Tokyo. Japanese TV series and accessories are all the rage with the young crowd, as are Thai-language magazines with articles on sushi joints, tea-drinking ceremonies, and the Japanese art of gift-wrapping.

In a high-end housing craze, developers are building skyscraping condos in Bangkok and tourist destinations like Phuket and Pattaya. But there's a lot of debate over who will buy all them—rents start at around $300 a month (close to the average Thai salary) and skyrocket from there.

Foreigners, who aren't allowed to buy land but can own condo units, can only fill 49% of the total area of a building, so developers are offering significant discounts to Thais. Still, there may not be enough money around to fill all these pricey new homes, and many pundits were warning of a crash even before the global economic downturn in the fall of 2008.

Updated: 03-2014

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