THAILAND:   The Land of Smiles is perhaps the correct name for the Kingdom of Thailand, a country consisting of 60 million people, most of whom are Buddhists.  Charming smiles are so contagious, that the visitor begins to become at ease by just being this beautiful country.   The Thais are renowned for their friendliness and hospitality to strangers, and their delicious national cuisine needs no introduction.  

Archaeological discoveries around the north-east hamlet of Ban Chiang suggest that the world's oldest Bronze Age civilization was flourishing in Thailand some 5,600 years ago. By the early 1200s, Thais had established small northern city states in Lanna, Phayao and Sukhothai. In 1238, two Thai chieftains rebelled against Khmer suzerainty and established the first truly independent Thai kingdom in Sukhothai.

Founded in 1350, Ayutthaya remained the Thai capital until 1767 when it was destroyed by Burmese invaders. During Ayutthaya's 417 years as the capital, under the rule of 33 kings, the Thais brought their distinctive culture to full fruition, rid of their lands of Khmer presence and fostered contact with Arabian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese and European powers. Ayutthaya's destruction was as severe a blow to the Thais as the loss of Paris or London would have been to the French or English.

However, Thai revival occurred within a few months and the Burmese were expelled by King Taksin who later made Thon Buri his capital. In 1782, the first king of the present Chakri dynasty, Rama I, established his new capital on the site of a riverside hamlet called Bangkok. Two Chakri monarchies, Mongkut (Rama IV) who reigned between 1851 and 1868, and his son Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910) saved Thailand from western colonization through adroit diplomacy and selective modernization.

The country covers an area of 198,000 square miles. It lies between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Bordered by Myanmar to the west and north, Laos to the north-east, Cambodia to the east and Malaysia to the south. The kingdom has four very different regions. The North is mountainous. The Central Plains are a fertile rice bowl. The North-east is an upland plateau. The South is a peninsula lined with stunning tropical beaches and enticing islands.

Thailand has a tropical climate with three seasons: hot from February to May, rainy from June to October and cool from November to January. Temperatures range from 35 Celsius in April to a pleasant 20 Celsius in December.

Thailand has a population of about 60 million. The majority are ethnic Thais, but historically the area has been a migratory crossroads, with Mon, Khmer, Burmese, Lao, Malay, Indian and Chinese. Despite this diversity, the country has a great cultural and social harmony. Everyone speaks the same Thai language, even though there are subtle differences of dialect in the various regions and localities. Each region also has a unique identity, molded by the landscape and people.

The North is an area of forested mountains, populated by hill peoples and lowlanders. In the South, the beaches and islands contrast with rainforests and rubber plantations in the interior. The Malay-Muslim element in the population gives this region its special cultural flavor. Between North and South lies the Central Plains, the country's rice bowl and cradle of Thai civilization. The North-East has a tougher climate yet possesses a rich culture from its long historical association with Laos and Cambodia to the east.

Thais are very proud of their language. It is the carrier of the cultural and artistic heritage, and also a mark of Thailand's long-standing independence and sovereignty.

Over 90 per cent of Thais follow Theravada Buddhism - a branch of Hinayana Buddhism. Buddhism is the most powerful force in the nation's culture. Muslims are the second biggest religious group, but there are also Christians, Hindus and other faiths. Tolerance is total and there is no history of religious conflict.