If you’ve spent time Thailand or know a little about the country, you’ll have seen they use a different date system.
While they are cool with 12th of January or 23rd of February and so on… they (mostly) still like to use their system of years.
What year is it in Thailand right now?
The year (as of writing) is 2019 AD. The corresponding Thai year is พ.ศ. 2562. The next year will be 2020 AD for us, and Thai people will call it พ.ศ. 2563.
Here’s a quick guide, you’ll notice the pattern pretty quickly:
2018 AD -> พ.ศ. 2561
2019 AD -> พ.ศ. 2562
2020 AD -> พ.ศ. 2563
2021 AD -> พ.ศ. 2564
พ.ศ. (phaaw saaw) is short for พุทธศักราช (phoot tha sak ga raat) which roughly translates as Buddhist Era and can be shortened to BE.
BE is always 543 years ahead of the Western calendar. I was born in 1986, which means my Thai year of birth would be พ.ศ. 2529.
What Is The Buddhist Era?
The Buddhist Era is a renumbered Gregorian calendar based on the death of Gautama Buddha. It’s the official calendar in Thailand whose population is majority Buddhist (93-94%) but is rarely used outside of the country.
The Buddhist Era began 543 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar because Gautama Buddha died (by some accounts) in 543 BC, 543 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. This implies the calendar has been used for a long time. As I’ll explain later, this isn’t the case.
It’s important to distinguish this from the Buddhist calendar which is a set of lunisolar calendars that are used in many South-East Asian countries for religious holidays and official occasions.
For example, Makha Bucha (มาฆบูชา) is a national holiday in Thailand and an important Buddhist festival. It is centred around the third lunar month (Makha – มาฆ) and involves merit-making, worship (บูชา), purifying one’s minds and not committing sins. It also means alcohol sales are restricted for 24 hours.
The Buddhist calendar is an important part of Thailand’s history but is not used to determine the year.
Do Thai people use BE in real life?
It seems strange that while the rest of the world is happy to agree on one time and date system, Thailand chooses to go against the grain. You might think that the Buddhist Era date system might be kept for tradition’s sake but they actually use the international date system for practical use. You would think wrong.
In actual fact, the Buddhist Era year system is widely used in Thailand. If you ask a Thai person to write down their date of birth, they will write down something like 14/04/2532. If you need them to write down the current day when signing for a package, they will write down 04/01/2562 (the date I’m writing this).
Let’s take a look at my latest electricity bill payment confirmation letter. The date is circled in red.
(By the way, you may have noticed they use the DD/MM/YYYY format for writing dates. Let’s be honest Americans, it’s far more logical than MM/DD/YYYY.)
Despite this, Thai people know the Western year and will be able to use and translate it if called upon. Better English speakers and more internationally-orientated Thais are more proficient at this.
Nowadays, you’ll also see some newspapers choose to use to put their dates in AD rather พ.ศ. too.
How Long Has Thailand Been Using Buddhist Era?
I used to think the Thai year system was an ancient tradition from centuries past. After all, you can understand why they wouldn’t want to give up an ingrained part of their heritage.
Well, the truth is that พ.ศ. or the Buddhist Era was only adoped about 100 years ago.
Historically, the region that is now Thailand was mostly rural and agriculture-dominated. While there were kingdoms and empires like Ayuttaya and Sukhothai, and they had wars with the Burmese or Khmer, the creation of the nation of Thailand happened relatively recently. As such, a number of different time/date/year systems were used that were standard across the parts of Thailand, but not standardised with the rest of the world.
When the European powers’ colonisation extended towards South East Asia, Thailand became squeezed between the dominance of the French to their East in Indochina (Vietnam, Camboida and Laos, roughly) and the British to the West who had taken over most of what we now call Burma.
It is a proud point for Thai people that their country was never colonised, one of the few countries in the world to avoid this fate. It helped that the British and French were reluctant to share a land border in this part of the world, but much of the credit goes to the king at the time who embraced a policy of modernisation and co-operation with the European nations.
One aspect of this modernisation was to adopt the use of the Buddhist Era. It was commutable with the calendar the rest of the world was using but still retained an emphasis on the dominant religion of Thailand which was Buddhism, rather than the dominant religion that the Western calendar is based off, Christianity.
He made this change in what we would call 1912 AD, making the Thai calendar just over 100 years old.
How To Tell The Time In Thailand
If you thought shifting the year 543 years into the future was the limit to Thailand’s date/time shenanigans, you’ve got another thing coming.
In Thailand, days of the week have their own auspicious colour and planet. You can read the different colours in a nice table here.
For example, the loved and revered former King of Thailand, Adiydulydej Bhumibol, was born on Monday. Paintings of him emphasised his birth colour yellow, people wore yellow on his birthday. Even at this present moment (2019), walking around Bangkok on a Monday you will see a sea of yellow as a sign of respect to the late monarch.
Another difference is how you tell the time. While Thailand follows the 24-hour clock, it is broken into lots of different periods and you tell the time depending on which period you are in.
For example, the last period is called tum and indicates the time from 7pm to 11pm. If you want to meet at 9pm then you would have to say saam tum which means like 3 (saam) hours after the tum period has started. Here’s an article that does a much better job of explaining it than I can.
It’s incredibly confusing and I’ve still not fully got my head around it despite 6 years living here and learning the language. What baffles me is that watches and clocks are no different to what we might use, so telling the time requires a double translation for me to explain it in Thai!