by Bob Brooke
Though many people know Thailand, formerly known as Siam, as the location for Rogers and Hammerstein's 1950s musical The King and I and for the devastation of the seaside resort of Phuket from the 2004 tsunami, the country remains a mystery to most.
Located in the center of the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia, it shares borders with Burma, Laos, and Cambodia and is the only country in Southeast Asia never colonized by a European power. However, the Thais, themselves, originated in the Yunnan Valley in South Central China. They left there in the 7th and 8th centuries, migrating south and settling in the valleys of what's now Laos and northern Thailand. At the time, the Khmer of Cambodia ruled most of region from the city of Angkor.
Most Thais regard a battle in 1238 in which two Thai chiefs from Chiangmai defeated the Khmers and established a new capital further south at Sukhothai as the real beginning of the Thai kingdom. Here, Thai society and culture flourished, but in 1350, after an epidemic, the capital again moved south to Ayutthaya, just 55 miles north of the present city of Bangkok.
In 1767, the Burmese captured Ayutthaya and forced the Thai court to move south once again, this time to Thon Buri, the sister city of Bangkok. It wasn't long, however, before the Thais staged a brilliant recovery and extended their frontiers considerably. In the 1850s King Mongkut, the person Yul Brynner played in the movie The King and I, introduced progressive measures aimed at modernizing his country. He had a railway, as well as universities and hospitals built while expanding and improving the education system. He also had roads built and telegraph equipment installed. However, a bloodless coup by the army brought an end to Thailand's absolute monarchy in 1932 and in 1939, Field-Marshal Pibul Songgram changed the country's name from Siam to Thailand. After World War II, the government established a constitutional monarchy with the hereditary king as head of state.
Most visitors to Thailand go only to Bangkok, the throbbing urban heart of this exotic country. But further north lies Ayutthaya, the country's ancient capital. Here, you'll discover magnificent ruins and the Chao Sam Phraya Museum with its collection of 500-1000-year-old bronze Buddhas and beautiful hand-carved door panels. On the way to or from Ayutthaya, you should stop at the the old Royal Summer palace at Bang-Pa-In.
Even farther north lies Chiangmai, a pleasant provincial city with none of the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. The modern city sprawls around the old walled and moated city that was the center of an important Thai kingdom long before the founding of Bangkok. The area's cool climate and superb scenery will make you want to extend your visit.
To the west of Bangkok, you'll find the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai, destroyed by Allied bombers during the war and Nakhon Pathom, the oldest city in Thailand and home of the great mustard-colored Phra Pathom Chedi, the largest pagoda in Southeast Asia built on the site where Buddhism is said to have been first preached in Thailand.
Of all the places in Asia, Thailand has the best beaches where tall palms sway above pearl-like sands. With its seemingly endless coastline and jungle covered islands, coastal Thailand is the next thing to paradise. Here, you can play in the gentle surf, dive to magnificent coral reefs, or recuperate at a seaside health resort.
But above all, Thailand is a country devoted to Buddhism. Golden temples, shrines, and Buddhas dot the landscape. It's the Thai's religious devotion that anchors what seems like everyday chaos to a sea of tranquility.