Thailand, in Southeast Asia, is dominated by the Chao Phraya River basin, which contains Bangkok—the capital and largest city, with some 9.7 million people. Bangkok presents a distinctive Buddhist landscape, with gold-layered spires, graceful pagodas, and giant Buddha statues. To the east rises the Khorat Plateau, a sandstone plateau with grasses and woodlands. The long southern region, connecting with Malaysia, is hilly and forested.
The population is largely homogeneous, with most being ethnic Thai and professing Buddhism. Some three million Muslims live in the south near the border with Malaysia.
Two 19th-century kings of Siam, Mongkut and his son Chulalongkorn, introduced Western education and technology but preserved the character of a devout Buddhist society. The only nation in Southeast Asia to escape colonial rule, Siam changed its name in 1939 to Thailand, meaning “land of the free.” However, Thailand has not escaped military coups—more than a dozen since 1932, when a revolution transformed the government from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. Resentment against leaders of the 1991 coup sparked demonstrations by a pro-democracy movement. Reforms did take place, and a new constitution went into effect in 1997. The 2001 elections confirmed Thailand’s democracy credentials as the people voted in the new Thai Rak Thai (“Thais Love Thais”) Party.