Like many ancient civilizations worldwide, Thais in the past tended to have their settlement near canals and rivers. Their livelihood depended mainly on water for domestic and agricultural use as well as for communication. The significance of the waterways in the way of living of Thai people is obvious in the names of many towns and districts that usually begin with the word “bang”, meaning a village settlement or group of shop houses built along a canal or river, or on the sea coast. Many districts in Bangkok begin with this word such as Bang Na, Bang Plee, Bang Rak and Bang Khun Tiean. Even the capital itself is Bangkok. As an agriculturally-based society, the lives of Thai people were closely integrated with their environment. It is a relationship that has led to the development of many customs and beliefs, which are closely bound up with the lifestyle of the people and their homes. A riverside community took shape after a group of houses were built along the canal or river. When the village had prospered, other essential facilities such as a market and a temple would soon appear. The temple was usually built to face a river bank or the rising sun. It is based on a story that Buddha was seated on a river bank at dawn when he was enlightened. Situated immediately behind the riverside village would be the fruit orchards and fields for rice and other crops.
A classic Thai house consists of a wooden house on a platform raised on posts. Its gabled, elegantly tapering roof has been in existence for many centuries. It can be seen on Dvaravati stone reliefs from the 8th century. A French author François-Timoléon de Choisy, who came to the Thai kingdom in the 17th century, also mentioned in his memoir houses on posts lining the banks of the Chao Phraya river. Regional differences in architecture can be seen in such features as the choice of materials, pitch of roof, layout of the interior, etc. However, it is in the Central Plains that one finds the most intimate union between Thais and their waterways. A traditional Thai house consists of a wooden panelled house on high posts with two or more buildings clustered around a central verandah through the centre of which grows a large, shady tree. Underneath the house may be used to store some agricultural equipment and a low table on which the owners and their friends sit and chat. It also provides a work area and a barn for food animals. The compound may include a variety of fruit and vegetable plants such as banana, coconut, mango and lime. A buffalo may be tied to a fence post. During the monsoon when the level of the river begins to rise, the animals are moved to a detached, partially roofed enclosure. Trees along the river bank also provide shade and protect the river bank against erosion. The houses are made from locally available materials. They were prefabricated and could be moved and re-erected.
Today such houses still exist but they are becoming hard to find. Corrugated iron has replaced the traditional tiles roof and various additions have been tacked on any old house. Nowadays, many Thais do not appreciate traditional Thai houses as they find them dark or poorly insulated and ill adapted to modern cities. For hundred years, however, they were the perfect dwelling, standing in the midst of shady trees near the rice fields. Raised high above the ground, they were also cool and breezy and above all, beautiful.