Paul first visited Thailand in 1996 and has been retired in Siam since 2007. He has a beautiful and loving Thai wife and can speak Thai.
Traditional Thai Wedding in a Village Home
Significance of the Thailand Village
If you haven't lived in or visited a Thai village, you haven't experienced traditional Thai culture. Everyone knows Thailand by its famous cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai and its well-known beaches on Phuket and Samui. Not many people, however, are aware of life in the countryside villages where most Thai live. The large cities are as westernized as you can get, but still there exists a simpler, older, and colorful rural life in the villages worth examining. This article will first introduce the geography and administrative structure of Thailand. After briefly discussing life in the cities, it will describe in more detail life in the villages and the towns to which they are attached.
Formerly known as Siam, Thailand is a country about the land size of Spain located in Southeast Asia. It is bordered in the north by Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. Laos and Cambodia are to the east of Thailand. To the south lie Malaysia and the Gulf of Thailand while the Andaman Sea and Myanmar are to the west.
The physical geography of Thailand is very divergent ranging from mountains in the north to rainforests in the south. The central flat Chao Phraya river valley is separated from the northeastern section of the country by mountains. The land in the northeast aka Isaan sits on the Khorat Plateau and is bordered to the east by the Mekong River. The southern region of the country begins on the Kra Isthmus and terminates at the Malaysian border.
Thai Administrative Structure
Thailand has a population of approximately 66 million residing in 76 provinces including Bangkok which is also a specially governed district. Although many people live in the big cities including Bangkok which has a population of about 12 million, two-thirds of the people still live in villages in the provincial countryside. Most of the villages are located in northern and northeastern Thailand. Administratively, the country is divided into provinces which each have a capital city. People who don't live in the provincial cities live within amphoes (districts) in the countryside. Each district has a capital town and its local government. Districts are further divided into tambons (sub-districts) which are further divided into villages. To cite an example, my wife is from Udonthani Province in northeastern Thailand. Udonthani is the capital of Udonthani Province. Her native village is in Kut Chap District which is in the western part of the province. The name of her village is Nongyibao and it is part of the sub-district Pangchut which is part of Kut Chap District. Kut Chap District altogether has seven sub-districts. There are 94 villages under the seven sub-districts with a total population of about 62,000.
City Life in General
Most tourists are well acquainted with life in the cities. Places like Bangkok and Chiang Mai are political, commercial, industrial, and cultural centers. Also, there are numerous universities, hospitals, and entertainment venues for the population. Since the people are living in a high densely populated area, their housing and quality of life are different from rural residents. Instead of living in a house with their parents, city dwellers are packed into apartments or single rooms where there is much less space. The quality of life is less healthy with various forms of pollution. The pace of life is much quicker than that of the countryside, and most people aren't as friendly to their neighbors. There is less traditional Thai culture in the cities that has been replaced with western influences such as the ubiquitous Seven-11s, supermarkets, and MacDonalds. City life in Thailand is appealing to most western tourists because it is comfortable and convenient with several restaurants, bars, and nightclubs.
Thailand Village Life
Village life in Thailand is much different from life in the cities just as it was when I was growing up near a farming village in the 1950s. The average Thai village has approximately 100 families with a population of around 600. Most of the residents are engaged in agriculture. In taking my wife's home village as an example, almost all of the houses are two-story wooden structures on stilts. Traditionally, the farmers kept livestock such as chickens, ducks, pigs, and farm equipment on the first level under the second level where the family lived. Nowadays, the open area on the first level has been enclosed and made into living areas for the family. In many of the older houses, there is no indoor plumbing, and one must use different styles of outhouses with both squat and sit-down commodes. Many homes also don't have showers. The traditional way of showering is by scooping some water with a container from a large storage urn and then throwing it on your body. Most villagers have about one acre of land on the side and in the back of their houses where they have gardens and fruit orchards. Agricultural land for the growing of rice, sugar cane, potatoes, and now lately rubber trees is found usually 1-2 kilometers from the village.
The village itself has very few stores and almost no public services which cities have. In the village of Nonyibao, I observed only 2-3 small outdoor cafes, a beauty salon, and 2-3 small Mom and Pop convenience stores. There is a small public elementary school for grades 1-6, but there are no police or fire and rescue squad services. There are also no banks, doctors or clinics, supermarkets, fast food restaurants like MacDonalds, and department stores.
The district town of Kut Chap which is 10 km from Nongyibao and 25 km from Udornthani City provides the public services which are lacking in the village. Kut Chap has both public and private schools for elementary and junior high school students (grades 1-9). Senior high school students, however, must go into Udonthani City to study. Kut Chap has police and fire and rescue squad services and a small hospital on the outskirts of town. Recently both a mini Tesco-Lotus shopping center and a Seven-11 have opened. There are also wired internet connections which the village does not have.
Daily Life in a Thai Village
Lanna Village Life in Northern Thailand
Unique Features of Thailand Village Life
Since 2006 I have learned a lot about life in a Thai village. Summing up all of my experiences, I would say the following are four unique features worth noting:
1. The Importance of the Temple and Buddhism in Village Life:
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In many respects, the temple and Buddhism are the center of life for most villagers. As a case in point, my mother-in-law regularly visits the temple every morning before 7:00. The temple is located in a wooded area about two kilometers from the village. Four or five Buddhist monks live there and lead prayers and chants every morning. My mother-in-law prepares food for them most mornings and takes it to the temple as a way of making merit. Many other women in the village do the same. On special Buddhist holidays, the monks will come into the village and lead prayers for the villagers at the Village Center for Career Development where the village headman (puyaiban) carries out community affairs. Buddhist New Year activities have also been held on the temple grounds. There is also a crematorium on the temple grounds. All deceased members of the village are cremated thereafter funerals, and their ashes are put in urns which are enclosed in colorful monuments placed at the edge of the temple grounds.
2. The Significance of the Village Head Man (Puyaiban):
I first became aware of the village headman when I was awakened by his loud public address announcements at 6:00 most mornings. The village headman who is elected by the residents of the village always seems to know when I'm in the village because he comes to visit me. Most of his morning announcements which are in Isan, the northeastern dialect of Thai, have to do with village affairs. Very often he will mention the names of all of the villagers who have contributed money to a cause and the amount of money they have contributed. If there are any disagreements among residents of the village, he will work to resolve them. Since there is no mail delivery to individual villagers, the village headman will announce every morning or evening who has mail. The villagers will then go to his office to pick up their mail.
3. A Celebration of Festivals:
When Thai villagers are not working they like to have a lot of fun. Villagers do have the chance for fun by the celebrating of the many festivals that Thailand has. Many of the festivals are related to Buddhism such as the Buddhist New Year (Songkran). During this festival, the elderly sit on the sides of the village streets while younger residents come and pour water over their hands as a sign of respect and making merit. Before this ritual, monks from the temple come into the village and lead the villagers in prayers and chants. Then, behind a huge truck with enormous amplifiers, residents parade around the streets of the village while doing the traditional Thai "ram" dance. Some other traditional Thai festivals like Loi Kratom are held in the district town. For this festival, residents from neighboring villages come to float little banana leaf boats adorned with flowers and candles on a pond and make a wish for good luck. Other people will release lit hot air boxed kites (kornfai) high into the sky after making a wish. There are many games for kids to play and adults are treated to singers and dancers in concert.
4. Genuine Caring Nature for One Another:
Finally, I have noticed the genuine caring nature that all members of the village have for each other. During a visit to the village in 2009, I slightly injured my lower back in a traffic accident. Many of the villagers went to special trouble to prepare Thai medicinal treatments for my speedy recovery. I have also seen many villagers help each other with farm work and the care of children.
A Thailand village is an interesting and exciting place to visit. You might not have some of the comforts and conveniences of city life, but you will be rewarded with a glimpse into Thailand's colorful traditional culture.
Making Merit to Buddhist Monks
Rocket Festival in My Wife's Home Village
Buddhist Temple Ceremony near a Thai Village
Thailand Village Life
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: How do Thai villagers entertain themselves?
Answer: During the Thai and Western New Years, many people entertain themselves by singing traditional Thai songs on karaoke machines. For the Thai New Year festival in April and the Rocket Festival in May, there will be parades through the village. On many Buddhist holidays, activities are held at the village temple.
© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn