Thailand lies within the Indochinese Peninsula, except for the southern extremity, which occupies a portion of the Malay Peninsula. The country's extreme dimensions are about 1770 km (about 1100 mi) from north to south and about 800 km (about 500 mi) from east to west. The physiography is highly diversified, but the mountain systems are the predominant feature of the terrain. A series of parallel ranges, with a north-south trend, occupy the northern and western portions of the country.
Extreme elevations occur in the westernmost ranges, which extend along the Burmese frontier and rise to 2595 m (8514 ft) atop Doi Inthanon, the highest point in Thailand. The peninsular area, which is bordered by narrow coastal plains, reaches a high point of 1786 m (5860 ft) atop Khao Luang. Another mountain system projects, in a northern and southern direction, through central Thailand. At its southern extremity, the system assumes an east-west trend and extends to the eastern frontier. Doi Pia Fai (1270 m/4167 ft) is its highest peak.
The region to the north and east of this system consists largely of a low, barren plateau, called the Khorat Plateau. Making up about one-third of the country, the plateau is bordered by the Mekong River valley. Between the central and western mountains is a vast alluvial plain traversed by the Chao Phraya, the chief river of Thailand. This central plain, together with the fertile delta formed by the Chao Phraya near Bangkok, is the richest agricultural and most densely populated section of the kingdom.
Thailand Natural Resources
Thailand is rich in natural resources. Among the known mineral deposits are coal, gold, lead, tin, tungsten, manganese, zinc, and precious stones. The rich alluvial soil along the Chao Phraya and other rivers constitutes another important resource. Natural gas deposits were discovered offshore in the 1970s, reducing Thailand's reliance on imported petroleum.
Plants and Animals of Thailand
Jungles and swamps, scattered through the coastal areas of Thailand, have extensive tracts of tropical trees, including mangrove, rattan, ironwood, sappanwood, ebony, and rosewood. The upland areas are also heavily wooded, the most valuable species being teak, agalloch, and oak. In addition, a wide variety of tropical plants and fruit trees, including orchid, gardenia, hibiscus, banana, mango, and coconut, occur in Thailand. Many species of animal inhabit the jungles and forests. Elephants, widely used as beasts of burden, are abundant. Other large animals include the rhinoceros, tiger, leopard, gaur, water buffalo, and gibbon. The Siamese cat is, as its name implies, indigenous to Thailand. Thailand has more than 50 species of snakes, including several poisonous varieties. Crocodiles are numerous, as are various species of fishes and birds.
Thailand is one of the world's leading producers of rice, despite the fact that the yield per hectare is low. In the early 1990s Thailand annually produced approximately 18.5 million metric tons of rice, up from about 11.3 million metric tons per year in the 1960s. The second most important crop in value is rubber, which is raised mainly on plantations on the Malay Peninsula. In the early 1990s approximately 1.4 million metric tons of rubber were produced each year. Other important crops included cassava (21.1 million metric tons), sugarcane (46.8 million), maize (3.6 million), pineapples (1.9 million), coconuts (1.4 million), and kenaf (161,000), a fiber used in making canvas. Livestock totaled about 6.8 million cattle, 4.8 million buffalo, 5.1 million pigs, and 153 million poultry.
Forestry and Fishing
About 28 percent of the total land area of Thailand is forested. The most valuable forest product is hardwood. The annual timber harvest in the early 1990s totaled about 37.6 million cu m (about 1.3 billion cu ft), of which all but 7 percent was burned for fuel. Thailand was a major exporter of teak until a ban on uncontrolled logging was instituted in 1989, following severe flooding as a result of deforestation.
Fishing is rapidly growing in importance to the Thai economy. In the early 1990s the annual catch included 3.1 million metric tons of prawns, fish, and shellfish, and exports of ocean products, particularly prawns, accounted for about 10 percent of export earnings.
Mining in Thailand
The development of extensive natural gas reserves has decreased Thailand's dependence on energy imports. Annual production in the early 1990s was 6.5 billion cu m (230.3 billion cu ft), about 3 percent of the proven reserves. Gemstones, particularly diamonds, are the principal mineral export of Thailand, producing about 3.3 percent of export revenues. The country's chief mineral products included (with annual output in the early 1990s) lignite (14.5 million metric tons), zinc ore (496,000), lead concentrates (65,500), tin (14,200), gypsum (7.2 million) and iron ore (240,100).
Thailand's increasingly diversified manufacturing sector is a central component of the nation's economic expansion, growing by 9.4 percent annually during the 1980s and early 1990s. Manufacturing employs about 15 percent of the labor force. Food-processing industries, especially rice milling and sugar refining; textile and clothing manufacture; and the electronics industry predominate. Other important manufactured goods included cement (18 million metric tons), motor vehicles (318,000 units), cigarettes (38.3 billion units), and various chemicals and petroleum products.
In the early 1990s Thailand annually produced about 43.8 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, up from about 3 billion kilowatt-hours in 1968. Installed generating capacity is about 10 million kilowatts, most of it at generating plants fueled by hydrocarbons.