Symbolism is a core part of a country’s culture. You can learn what values are paramount in a nation by looking at its list of symbols. Of course, Object X representing benevolence in country A, could signify disaster in country B. So, what are significant symbols in Thailand you should know of?
Thailand’s most significant symbol is arguably elephants. The locals consider this huge trunked beast a national animal that protected the country during the warring era. Other notable symbols are the lotus flower representing Buddhism, Wai for respect, and Garuda for the government.
Needless to say, there is more symbolism in Thailand you should recognize. So read on to find out more about Thai national and traditional symbols.
What are the cultural symbols of Thailand?
As you may know, listing all Thai symbols in one article is impossible. Why? Because the country has more than thousands of symbols representing national values and beliefs. Not to mention the different regional symbolisms.
However, in this article, you can divide Thai symbols into 5 categories: Plants, Animals, Gestures, Colors, and Objects.
But before you move on, let’s discuss the general idea of Thai symbolism.
The origin of Thai symbols
If you are a culture expert, you might already know that symbolism is a tool people use to metaphorically summarize and explain abstracts. For example, fire in Tarot readings usually represents willpower, desire, and drive.
This logic applies to Thailand as well. Thai people use symbols to represent undefinable or complex phenomena and concepts in their own ways.
However, not all the symbols in Thailand originated inside the country. Much of Thai symbolism resembles those of other countries like China, India, and other historical giant nations.
For example, lotus flowers. You can say that Asians recognize this beautiful flower as a symbol of Buddhism alongside the Thammachak. The symbolism originated in India and became well-known over time.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Thailand has no original symbols. For instance, the locals have a unique way of relating colors to days of the week or unexplainable energy. Of course, it’s superstitious. But it is what they believe.
With that said, let’s start off the list with plant-based symbols.
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way.
As mentioned before, lotus is associated heavily with Buddhism. The main reason for this association is thanks to one of the famous teachings of Buddha himself. He compared humans to 4 states of lotus flowers.
- Those who are unredeemable are like underground lotus. They live so deep in the swamp. No matter how much you try to enlighten them, they will take an incredibly long time to reach their bloom.
- The underwater lotus is compared to those with a learning difficulty. They will take a long time to grow to the water’s surface and bloom.
- The surface lotus is for those who are almost ready. With only a couple of pushes, they can reach the peak.
- The blooming lotus is those who are ready to reach enlightenment. Just give them a minimal hint, and they will bloom to the utmost potential.
Furthermore, Thai people also perceive lotus as a symbol of bonds and relationships.
When you cut lotuses at the stem, you can see fibers stretching, trying to keep the whole thing together. Locals compare this to people. They may go their separate ways, but the memories they make will always keep them together.
▸ READ MORE about Thailand’s sacred lotus flower here.
2. Golden shower flower
Arguably the most significant plant in Thailand since it is the national symbol.
The locals believe that if you plant a golden shower tree on your property, your wealth and influence will flourish like the abundant flowers of this tree. So, you can see this tree in every region of Thailand.
And since it grows well in a hot environment, wild golden showers are also common in Thai forests.
Coincidentally, the golden shower’s flowers are yellow, the color of King Rama IX the great. So people also call this plant the king’s tree.
▸ READ MORE on Thailand’s national flower here.
3. Ixora, Eggplant, and Scutch grass
These three plants symbolize teachers. Each one represents a quality all educators should possess.
Ixora signifies intellect and wisdom.
In English, you use the word “sharp” to describe an intelligent person. In Thai, however, locals call such individuals “pointy.” And Ixora happens to have needle-like flowers. So, Thai people use them to represent this quality.
Eggplant signifies humility.
While knowledgeable, an ideal teacher should never be boastful or arrogant. They should always be humble and modest. And eggplant trees have that quality since the trunks always curve down like a person bowing.
Scutch grass signifies patience and endurance.
Teaching is not an easy job. It requires high patience to educate students and deal with their parents. And this mundane-looking grass is said to be as tough as stones. It can survive all types of weather and withstand attacks from insects or the pressure of a fallen tree.
▸ READ MORE about Thai plants and flowers here.
As mentioned, this animal is the national symbol of Thailand.
If you’re a Thailand fanatic, you might know that the old Thai flag’s design consisted of a war elephant and a red background.
Elephants were the most reliable animal as a mount in the warring era. They are big, strong, and intelligent. In the army, they also emit a majestic aura that boosts allies’ morale and intimidates enemies.
In ancient warfare, a battle can end with an “Elephant Duel.” This is an event where the generals of both sides fight each other to death on the elephant’s back. You can think of it as jousting with elephants.
However, it’s not only the people who fight. Elephants do too. They usually crash into each other head-on, locking their ivory together. Each elephant will try to lift up its opponent, forcing up an opening for strikes.
Even though King Naresuan’s elephant was small, it could still lift its opponent up in the ivory fight — creating the opening to land a fatal blow.
Garuda is a modern symbol of the government body in Thailand.
This animal is a mythical beast in Hinduism. It is a half-human-half-bird who hunts prey from the sky and uses magic to fight.
Hinduist believes that this animal is the mounting vehicle of Narayana, one of the most significant deities of Hinduism.
So the Garuda represents the authority figure who serves the great ruler.
3. Rajasiha (The great lion)
This animal was used to represent the governmental body of Thailand before changing to garudas.
Basically, Rajasiha is a mythical lion living in a legendary forest called Himmapan.
Their appearance is similar to ordinary lions without a mane. And they usually have beautiful tattoo-like art on their body. They emit a majestic aura in all actions.
Rajasiha was one of the three primary symbols of old Thai politics. It signifies the power of the domestic government. The other two were Gajasimha (Elephant + Lion), looking over warfare, and the Crystal lotus, representing international relationships.
Most foreigners see Wai as just a greeting. However, it can express many emotions, including respect, humility, and gratitude. In short, it highlights how significant veneration is in Thai etiquette.
Of course, the primary function of this action is still greeting. But you can use it to say goodbye, thank you, and even sorry.
▸ READ MORE about Thai Wai here.
2. Hand point
Usually, you point at something with your index finger or thumb. But in Thailand, you point at something with your whole hand.
The locals consider pointing at people rude. And sometimes, this logic applies to objects, like Buddha’s images, King’s statues, and even spirit doll houses or Sal Phra Phume (ศาลพระภูมิ).
So, when you want to point, do it respectfully with your whole hand.
In General, a smile represents happiness. However, Thai people take this symbolism to the extreme.
The locals smile in every situation. Pleasant or painful, they will keep smiling from the beginning to the end. You’re happy? Smile. You’re upset? Smile too.
You could almost say that smiles represent extreme optimism in this country. However, it can symbolize insincerity as well.
▸ READ MORE about why Thailand is called the land of smiles here.
1. Daily color
For some reason, Thai people are really into color coding. And they sometimes create color codes that seem nonsense but are actually helpful. The most obvious example is the 7 daily colors.
There are 7 days a week. And each day has a specific color representing it.
- Red = Sunday
- Yellow = Monday
- Pink = Tuesday
- Green = Wednesday
- Orange = Thursday
- Blue = Friday
- Purple = Saturday
Some people even dress up in these colors on the associated days, believing it’s proper. Others wear these colors because they don’t know what else to wear.
The origin of this relationship between days and color is still obscure. It could be a trick to help children learn the name of the days. Or it could be a whimsical game of the past. However, it is common knowledge in Thailand.
▸ READ MORE about Thai colors of the day here.
Yellow can be many things in Thailand. And most of them are positive.
Yellow also represents wealth in some contexts, thanks to how it looks similar to gold.
It can sometimes represent Buddhism since the Thai Buddhist flag has a yellow background with the Thammachak as a focus.
Recently, it also refers to the conservatives on the political stage. Since most of these politicians always support the old tradition like Monarchy, they use Yellow to show their stance.
▸ READ MORE about wearing yellow in Thailand here.
Red in Thailand is usually related to happiness and celebration. This association comes from China, where red is the color of vitality and power.
However, you rarely find anyone who dresses in red anymore (except during the Chinese new year). The reason is red can be considered too outstanding. After all, you don’t want to stand out too much in a country that values the collective more than individuals.
And besides, red can also be related to bloodshed and misconduct (like a red alert).
So, this color is one of the most confusing colors in Thailand. It can represent both the good and bad depending on the context.
▸ READ MORE about wearing red in Thailand here.
Most locals wear amulets because they believe there’s a sacred spirit living inside.
These spirits can be respected deities like Ganesha or famous religious figures like Luang Phu Waen (หลวงปู่แหวน).
So, Thai amulets can be seen as a symbol of faith and beliefs (not necessarily religion).
▸ READ MORE about Thai amulets here.
Rings in Thailand can be a symbol of faith as well.
Like the amulets, many rings are believed to contain the spirit of a sacred figure inside.
If you see a weird-looking ring that doesn’t shine like an accessory, beware that it could be a sacred relic you should never make fun of.
▸ READ MORE about Thai jewelry here.
From the day the typewriter was imported into Thailand, the locals considered it the symbol of a teacher.
In the Thai context, children are often called blank sheets of paper. They are still young and innocent. Whatever they are taught will stay with them forever.
So, teachers are like a typewriter engraving knowledge and wisdom on paper. If the typewriter functions well, the characters will appear with clear ink. But if the typewriter is flawed, the characters will be crooked.
Learn the differences
And there you have it: 15 notable Thai symbols you should know about.
You might notice that some symbolism makes sense while others sound like gibberish. And that’s okay if you don’t understand. After all, people of different cultures view things differently. Thai people have their own way of making a metaphor, and so do you.
Like always, if you want to discover more about Thailand, stay guided by ThaiGuider. You might learn something you never knew about this unique country.
▸ CHECK OUT all our guides on Thai Culture here.
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