Theravada Buddhism is central to modern Thai identity and belief. In practice, Thai Buddhism has evolved over time to include many regional beliefs originating from animism as well as ancestor worship. In areas in the southernmost parts of Thailand, Islam is prevalent. Several different ethnic groups, many of which are marginalized, populate Thailand. Some of these groups overlap into Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia and have maintained a distinctly traditional way-of-life despite strong Thai cultural influence. Overseas Chinese also form a significant part of Thai society, particularly in and around Bangkok.
Like most Asian cultures, respect towards ancestors is an essential part of Thai spiritual practice. Thais have a strong sense of hospitality and generosity, but also a strong sense of social hierarchy. Seniority is an important concept in Thai culture. The elders always rule in family decisions or ceremonies.
The traditional Thai greeting, the wai, is offered first by the youngest of the two people meeting, with their hands pressed together, fingertips pointing upwards as the head is bowed to touch their face to the hands, usually coinciding with the spoken word "Sawat-dii krap" for male speakers, and "Sawat-dii kha" for females. The elder then is to respond afterwards in the same way. When children leave to go to school, they wai to their parents to represent their respect for them. They do the same when they come back. It is a sign of respect and reverence for another, similar to the namaste greeting of other cultures.
Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, is the national sport in Thailand and its native martial art call "Muay". In the past, "Muay" was taught to Royal soldiers for combat on battlefield if unarmed. After they retired from the army, they often became Buddhist monks and stayed at the temples. Thai people's lives are closely tied to Buddhism and temples; they often send their sons to be educated with the monks. ”Muay” is also one of the subjects taught in the temples.
Muay Thai achieved popularity all over the world in the 1990s. Although similar martial arts styles exist in other Southeast Asian countries, few enjoy the recognition that Muay Thai has received with its full-contact rules allowing strikes including elbows, throws and knees. Association football, however, has possibly overtaken Muay Thai's position as most widely viewed and liked sport in contemporary Thai society and it is not uncommon to see Thais cheering their favourite English Premier League teams on television and walking around in replica kits. Another widely enjoyed pastime, and once a competitive sport, is kite flying.
Taboos include touching someone's head or pointing with the feet, as the head is considered the most sacred and the foot the dirtiest part of the body. Stepping over someone, or over food, is considered insulting.
However, Thai culture as in many other Asian cultures is succumbing to the influence of westernization and some of the traditional taboos are slowly fading away with time.
Books and other documents are the most revered of secular objects - therefore one should not slide a book across a table or place it on the floor.
Thai cuisine blends five fundamental tastes: sweet, spicy, sour, bitter and salty. Some common ingredients used in Thai cuisine include garlic, chillies, lime juice, lemon grass, and fish sauce. The staple food in Thailand is rice, particularly jasmine variety rice (also known as Hom Mali rice) which is included in almost every meal.
Thailand is the world's largest exporter of rice, and Thais domestically consume over 100 kg of milled rice per person per year.
Over 5000 varieties of rice from Thailand are preserved in the rice gene bank of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in the Philippines. The King of Thailand is the official patron of IRRI.
Thai society has been influenced in recent years by its widely available multi-language press and media. There are numerous English, Thai and Chinese newspapers in circulation; most Thai popular magazines use English headlines as a chic Glam factor. Most all big businesses in Bangkok operate in English, spoken even between Thais, as a way of showing off their educated, high-society status. Thailand is the largest newspaper market in South East Asia with an estimated circulation of at least 13 million copies daily in 2003.