The characteristics of central Thailand (aka. the Central Plains) don’t particularly stand out the way the distinctive Northern, Northeastern, and Southern regions do. However, they are no “Plain Janes” either. In fact, they have evolved into the standard, or classic, representation of “Thai style”. And although it is hardly the only representation of this style, Thailand’s central region can rightfully claim the title as the birthplace of Siamese civilization, and the core of Thai culture.
Centuries before the Siamese capitals of Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Thonburi, and Rattanakosin (the Bangkok period) were established, the central plains area had been a hotbed for numerous townships and kingdoms. Besides the renown ruins of the former capitals, other remnants of the formative eras of Dvaravati, Lopburi, Suvannabhumi, and even Angkor can be appreciated within the provinces of Petchabun, Phitsanuloke, and Kampaeng Petch to the north, and U-thong, Nakhon Pathom, Suphanburi, Prachinburi, and even Chonburi to the south.
This entire geographical area is large and varied, ranging from Thailand’s lower Northern valleys, to the shores along the Gulf of Siam. It extends from the verdant jungle of the Tenasserim mountain range in Kanchanaburi in the west, to the rustic coastlines of Trat in the east, next to Cambodia. As a result, this region is sometimes divided into three parts: the central basin, the west, and the east. The Eastern seaboard is where industrial estates, ports, and naval bases located in Laem Chabang and Sattahip meet the hedonistic decadence of Pattaya and the outlying resort islands. But, more importantly, these central alluvial plains are surrounded by mountainous borders which gives the essential resource to the rice paddy fields—water.
Water is what holds this vast piece of land together, and it comes in all shapes and sizes—as rivers, streams, canals, lakes, waterfalls, dams, reservoirs, and the sea. The major artery of the Chao Phraya River starts in the heartland at Pak Nam Bho district, Nakhon Sawan province, where the Ping, Wang, Yom, and Nan rivers converge. Centuries ago, tall ships were able to sail up the river to Ayutthaya but the banks have since been silted. While the trade couldn’t go much further, the delta has become more and more fertile.
These waterways weave through the livelihoods of the locals, via their agrarian heritage, and make the farmers’ rice fields and fruit and vegetable orchards bountiful. The vital river arteries and the wide open sea also provide an abundant food supply, and the various kinds of fish, plump river prawns, dried seafood, krill paste, and the indispensable Thai fish sauce—as well as copious other ingredients from this region—have made their mark on the Kingdom’s world-famous cuisine. Dishes such as dtom yum—which blends the flavours of sweet, sour, and salty—capture the quintessential palate of Thai cuisine.
Through the eyes of the sociologist, the way the Central Plains folks live, work, and worship classifies them as “water people”. They live in bang, meaning ponds, swamps, marshlands, or havens that have waterways flowing into a river or to the sea. These bangs have become settlements, villages, and districts, such as Bangkapi, Bangrak, Bangsaen, and even the metropolis of Bangkok. Similar to other river civilizations, towns with houses, temples, and palaces have been built along the bodies of water.
Traditional Thai houses in the Central Plains style have tall columns and high basement areas (because of the floods). The roof lines peak and slope downwards so that the raindrops roll down fast while the air inside ventilates the heat upwards. These houses can also be disassembled and moved to be rebuilt somewhere new. Boats became major means of transportation and commerce, and floating markets can still be found in many communities such as in Ratchaburi, Chachoengsao, Samut Songkhram, and even around Bangkok. In yesteryears, people used to live in houseboats or house rafts so they could easily move up and downstream. Many boat song and boat racing festivals were borne out of this way of life.
The ethnic diversity in this area is also more than meets the eyes. The Tai, Mon, Lao, Chinese, Indian, and many more peoples have mixed and mingled in this regional melting pot. Most would think that since no dialects are spoken, people from the Central Plains voice the standard Thai language, like in the broadcast news. However, accents abound here, including the twang of Suphanburi folk, and the drawl of Chanthaburi and Trat natives.
Arguably, this amalgam of cultural and ethnic influences in the Central Plains results in the epitome of Thai style, arts, and culture. Thais are very well-known for selecting what we like and discarding what we don’t, and thus we adapt, alter, incorporate, and synthesize all the elements into a variety of refined results to suit our tastes—while keeping the authenticity. Perhaps, what can be identified and characterized as the uniqueness of the Thais of the Central Plains is their adaptability. As “water people”, our means of survival is to go with the flow.