Thailand is a mosaic of peoples and cultures, and yet it has never
suffered any serious racial conflict. This may be due to the fact that
the central Thai have ruled more by consensus than by force. The
widespread practice of Theravada Buddhism has also promoted racial
The Thais. At the beginning of the first millennium, a people known as the Tai migrated from what is now southern Chinas into the Chao Phraya River valley. When the Tai first arrived, the region was inhabited by Austro-Asiatic groups speaking Mon and Khmer; the present-day This are the product of the assimilation and fusion of these three groups. Many Thais still live in southern China (particularly in Yunnan, Guangdong, and Guangxi). Today four subdivisions of Thais are recognized in the country: the central Thais (from the region between Sukhothai and Phetchaburi), who speak the standard Thai taught in schools; the Pak Isan Thais (a mixture of Thai and Khmer in the northeast), who also speak standard Thai; the Pak Tai Thais (south of Phetchaburi), who have a darker complexion and speak a dialect largely incomprehensible to central Thais; the northern Thais, who speak a different dialect and who are a fusion of Thai immigrants with Karens and Lawas (Austro-Asiatic). Each of these groups had largely independent histories until recent centuries.
The Chinese. As traders, the Chinese arrived long before the Thais. They settled more permanently, at first in coastal cities in the south and then in other areas. The peak period of Chinese migration was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and they now form a substantial part of most urban populations. Thanks to extensive assimilation, it is difficult to distinguish them as a separate ethnic group.
The Laos. Much of the northeast is inhabited by groups of Lao-speaking people – Lao Wieng, Yuai, Yo, Lao Kao and Phutai – who migrated (some were forcibly moved) mostly during the last century and are today among the poorest in the country. Like the Thais, they belong to the Sino-Tibetan group. They are renowned for their weaving skills, and some groups were once distinguished by their dress, rather like today's hill tribes; these elaborate costumes can still be seen during village festivals. Though Buddhist, many still practice older animistic rituals.
The Khmers. Khmer-speaking people are also numerous in some parts of the northeast, particularly in Surin province near the Cambodian border. Most of them migrate durance the 19th century when Siam occupied a large part of Cambodia. The recent war in Cambodia has driven millions of Khmer refugees into Thailand but many of them are being gradually repatriated.
The Shans. The Thai Yai (right), called the Ngiaw by the Thais, belong to the Tai linguistic family and migrated from the Shan states of Burma in the 19th century. Today the Shans are scattered throughout the north, especially in Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang.
The Muslims. Thailand's largest religious minority, Muslims are concentrated mainly in the southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala and Satun. Most are of Malay descent and speak yawi (ancient Malay) as well as Thai. Ninety-nine percent of the Muslim population are Sunni Muslims, while the remaining one percent are Shi'ite. Those Muslims who are not Malaysians are probably descendants of Persian, Middle Eastern and Indian traders (left) who had settled in Siam during the Ayutthaya and early Bangkok periods.
The Mons. These people, who live mostly in Nakhon Pathom, Samut Songkram and Samut Prakan, are not ancestors of the ancient Mon culture that once ruled over portions of central Thailand, but relatively recent Buddhist immigrants from Burma.
Hill Tribes. The majority of the hill tribes in northern Thailand are relatively recent immigrants to the region. Only the Karens and the Lawas (right) were settled in the country before the arrival of the Thais. The hill tribes form a minority. The total population these days is about 800,000 Apart from the Karens and the Lawas, this group also includes the Miens (Yaos), Lisus, Lahu Shis and the Blue and White Hmongs. While aspects of religions such as Christianity, Buddhism and Islam have been adopted by some hill tribes, animism is still in evidence.