Throughout more than 700 years of independence, Thailand has displayed an amazing continuity, preserving its heritage to the extent that enduring traditions exemplify a quintessential 'Thainess' which indelibly colours the Kingdom.
Fundamental to that quality of 'Thainess' is an adherence to Theravada Buddhism, which promotes peaceful an harmonious living, and a devotion to the constitutional monarchy, which strengthens traditions and time-honoured values, not least being a belief in personal freedoms and a pronounced sense of hospitality. This, coupled with a democratic government and political stability, make Thailand not only a hospitable environment, but also a safe one where you can readily feel secure and ' at ease.
Such blessed attributes ensure a social and cultural environment in which the quality of life is high, while another endearing Thai trait, that of "sanuk", promises a happy approach to life. Translating as 'fun' or 'having a good time', "sanuk" is ingrained in the culture and most obviously manifest in the joyous celebration of festivals, although it also pervades daily life in which a pleasant, easy-going attitude prevails.
Moreover, it is the enduring quality of national characteristics that allow the Thais' the ability to embrace today's world, with all its modem comforts, while at the same time preserving their cultural heritage. This allows for a rare appreciation of history.
As a sovereign state, the country has a glorious and eventful past stretching back over more than seven hundred years. Before that, the Khmer, the Mons and other early kingdoms, as well as prehistoric civilizations, helped shape the land that was to become Thailand and set patterns to which the Thais became the cultural heirs. Evidence of this intriguing past is readily apparent, not simply in museums, although these are excellent, but in numerous well-preserved historical sites.
Just a short distance west of Bangkok , for example, stands Phra Fathom Chedi, the world's tallest Buddhist monument built on the site of an ancient Mon capital that was one of the earliest centres of Buddhist learning in the region. By contrast, Northeast Thailand offers a glimpse of Khmer civilization which, from its base at Angkor in Cambodia, held sway over the area from around the 10th to the 13th century. Vivid example of this major cultural influence are found in several magnificent temple ruins, such as Phimai and Phanom Rung, which,show the architectural genius of the Khmer. Also in the Northeast are the prehistoric remains of Ban Chiang, a Bronze Age Culture that dates back to 3600 BC.
Moving into the realm of recorded history, the achievements of the Thais can be seen in the remains of numerous ancient cities now preserved as historical parks. Supreme among these are Sukhothai, the Kingdom's first capital founded in the 13th century, and Ayutthaya which was the nation's glorious power centre for more than four years until its eclipse in 1767. Fittingly both these cities are now designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Bangkok may lack the big theatres and galleries of major American or European cities, but there is still plenty of entertainment choices, both traditional and modem, Thai and Western.
The classic Thai entertainment is dance drama, ,performances of which are staged at the National Theatre ( Chao Fa Road , Tel: 02224 1342), while excerpts, along with other traditional and folk dance forms, are featured in the cultural shows offered by various Thai restaurants. The major style of dance is Khon, a masked drama in which the performers, all gorgeously costumed, use graceful, sinuous body and hand movements to express both emotions and actions in the telling of the Ramakian, a moral epic. Classical Thai music accompanies the mute performances, which in their kaleidoscope of colour and movement present an unforgettable spectacle.
:Other traditional entertainments are shadow and string puppet shows, which also relate classic tales. In Bangkok the principal showcase for puppets is the Joe Louis Theatre at Suan Lum Night Bazaar on Wireless Road. Nor is modem and experimental drama overlooked and while these are not regular offerings, there are frequent performances by various drama companies, one of the most active being the Patravadi Theatre (69/1 Soi Wat Rakhang, Arun Amarin, Siriraj, Thon Buri, Bangkok , Tel: 0 2412 7287).
The principle venue for concerts, ballets and other performances, by Asian and Western companies of international renown, is the Thailand Cultural Centre (Ratchadaphisek Road, Tel: 0 2245 7711). Additionally, leading Bangkok hotels quite often host theatre-dinner shows stage by international performers. Bangkok further boasts a vibrant modem art scene, and numerous Bangkok galleries have constantly changing exhibitions of leading and up-and-coming contemporary Thai and other Southeast Asian artists.
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