Religion in Thailand

Buddhist Monk praying at a temple in Krabi, Thailand.
Thailand is known at the Land of the Yellow Robes, a reference to the color of the robes worn by Buddhist monks like the one pictured year. Almost 95 percent of Thai people are Buddhists.

Jiamsak Tongrung / EyeEm / Getty Images

With more than 64 million practitioners making up 95% of the population, Buddhism is the main religion of Thailand, and it has been since it was first introduced into the country more than a thousand years ago. However, there is no official state religion in Thailand, and freedom of religion is protected under the Thai constitution. 

Key Takeaways

  • Buddhism is the main religion of Thailand, with nearly 95% of the population identifying as Buddhist. Most Thai people practice the older, more conservative Theravada Buddhism rather than the younger Mahayana Buddhism.
  • Freedom of religion is protected under the Thai constitution, so strong congregations of Muslims, Christians, and various other faiths are present across the country. 
  • Though less than 1% of Thais are practicing Hindus, Hinduism arrived in Thailand as early as two millennia ago and has remained a significant presence ever since.

Other significant religions in Thailand include Islam, whose practitioners make up 4.3% of the population, and another 1% of the Thai population identify as Christian. Although the number of practicing Hindus is less than 1%, the religion, which has existed in Thailand for as much as 2000 years, still maintains a strong influence on daily Thai life. At 99%, a majority of Thai people are affiliated or identify with at least one organized faith or religion. 

Buddhism

Thailand has one of the highest percentages of Buddhists in the world, including nearly 95% of the population. The country has been colloquially nicknamed “The Land of the Yellow Robes,” referencing the yellow-colored draped robes worn by Buddhist monks.

Theravada Buddhism is the oldest form of Buddhism, dating back to as early as the 3rd century BC in India, and it is practiced by a majority of Thai people. By contrast, Mahayana Buddhism is a more recent form of the religion, dating back only to 150 BC, and Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants make up most of the Mahayana Buddhist population in Thailand.

While both divisions follow essentially the same doctrine, Theravada Buddhism is considered to be a more traditional and conservative form of the religion, claiming to follow the path toward Nirvana laid out by the Buddha much more closely.

While both forms of Buddhism are practiced in Thailand, the number of Theravada Buddhists greatly outnumbers that of Mahayana Buddhists. Additionally, because of the lack of a strong written record, it is difficult to determine when either form of Buddhism first arrived in Thailand. 

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism was first introduced into Thailand, formerly known as Siam, sometime during the first or second century BC, arriving via trade routes through Sri Lanka. In fact, Thai people refer to Theravada Buddhism as Lankavama, emphasizing the geographic origins of the religion.

Though religious freedom is protected under the constitution, the king of Thailand, one of the only remaining monarch in southeast Asia with political power, is required by law to be a Theravada Buddhist.

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism differs from Theravada Buddhism in that the spiritual focus is less academic and less solitary. The path toward Nirvana should be a shared experience, according to Mahayana doctrine.

Mahayana Buddhism is most closely associated with practices in China and Vietnam rather than India. Unsurprisingly, Mahayana Buddhism in Thailand is practiced almost exclusively by Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants. 

Hinduism

Though less than 1% of Thais are practicing Hindus, Hinduism arrived in Thailand as early as two millennia ago and has remained a significant presence ever since. Additionally, the former Khmer Empire was founded on Hinduism and neighbored Thailand for centuries, adding influence Hindu presence to the region. As a result, Thai Buddhism is cut with strong elements of Hinduism.

For example, the national emblem of Thailand is Garuda, known as Krut in Thai. Garuda, a half-man, half-bird figure, is the vehicle for the Hindu god Vishnu, emphasizing the close ties between Hinduism and Buddhism in Thailand. 

Garuda emblem and the Thai flag
Officially adopted in 1911, the Hindu Garuda, or half-man, half-bird figure, is the national emblem of Thailand, emphasizing the influence Hinduism has maintained on Thailand for centuries.  

Islam 

Just under 5% of the population of Thailand practice Islam, and of that 5%, a majority identify as Sunni. Most of these practitioners are ethnically Malay and are located almost entirely within the four of the five southern provinces of Thailand that border Malaysia, a majority-Muslim country

Islam was introduced into the Thai kingdom by Muslim merchants as early as the 9th century who settled in the southern parts of what is now known as Thailand. In contrast to the rapid conversions of Malay people in Indonesia and Malaysia in later centuries, the religious practice of Islam by mostly ethnically Malay people in southern Thailand was augmented by the foundational beliefs in Hinduism and Buddhism. These influences fused to create a unique form of Islam that still exists in the region today.

Christianity

Christianity was first brought to Thailand by Portuguese merchants, traders, and missionaries in the 16th century, during the Age of Exploration. Roman Catholic Dominican priests from both Spain and Portugal began operating missions across Thailand in attempts to convert Thais to Christianity, but their efforts met little success. For centuries, Thailand had one of the smallest Christian populations in southeast Asia. However, these missionaries did have a dramatic effect on the levels of education for native Thai people, especially elite members of society. Westerners brought with them medicine and opened private schools and hospitals, and wealthy Thai families began to send their children to Europe and, later, the United States to be educated.

In recent years, the population of Protestant Christians has grown rapidly and dramatically as a result of increased missionary work, especially in rural communities. Evangelical Christian missionaries open hospitals and schools and 

Indigenous Religions and Non-Religious People

The government of Thailand officially recognizes nine Chao Khao, or indigenous groups, that hold most animistic beliefs, although many of the religious practices of these groups have adopted elements of Christianity, Taoism, and Buddhism.

Additionally, in the most heavily populated areas of Thailand, including Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket, there are congregated populations of Sikhs, who are often mistaken, especially by westerners as Muslims because of the head turban, or dastar, worn by Sikh men. Sikhism was founded in the 1500s in northern India and arrived in Thailand shortly thereafter.

Though the government does not officially acknowledge every religious group present in Thailand, these groups are able to practice freely and generally without repercussions.

Sources

  • Aphornsuvan, Thanet. “History and Politics of the Muslims in Thailand .” Cornell University, Thammasat University, Dec. 2003.
  • “Thailand International Religious Freedom Report 2005.” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State, 2005.
  • Osborne, Milton E. Southeast Asia: An Introductory History. 11th ed., Allen & Unwin, 2013.
  • Somers Heidhues, Mary. Southeast Asia: A Concise History. Thames & Hudson, 2000.
  • “The World Factbook: Thailand.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 1 Feb. 2018.