The economy in Thailand is heavily agricultural, with rice by far the leading crop; Thailand is the world’s leading exporter of rice (1990). Other commercial crops include rubber, corn, kenaf, jute, tapioca, cotton, tobacco, kapok, and sugarcane. Thailand’s teak, once a major export, is still a valuable commodity. Marine and freshwater fisheries are important; fish provide most of the protein in the diet, and some of the deep-sea catches (mackerel, shark, shrimp, crab) are exported. Thailand is also a major exporter of farmed shrimp. Tin, by far the most valuable mineral, is a major export item. Tungsten, lead, zinc, and antimony are also mined for export. Iron ore, gold, precious and semiprecious stones (especially saphires and rubies), salt, lignite, petroleum, asphaltic sand, and glass sand are exploited on a smaller scale.
Thailand has substantial hydroelectric potential, which is being developed; projects have been constructed on the Ping, Mekong, Phong, and Songkhram rivers. Industry is growing and is centered chiefly in the processing of agricultural products; rice milling is by far the most important, followed by sugar refining, textile spinning and weaving, and the processing of rubber, tobacco, and forest products. During the 1980s and 1990s, electronics became important, causing a substantial rise in the per capita GDP. Lumbering is concentrated in the north.
The country also has a small steel mill, an oil refinery, tin smelters, and vehicle and machine assembly plants. Small factories, many of which are in the Bangkok area, manufacture building materials, jewelry, glass, pharmaceuticals, and various consumer goods. Tourism is the leading source of foreign exchange, and handicraft production has a ready market in the tourist trade. Thailand is also a major transshipment point for illicit heroin and has become a drug money–laundering center.
Bangkok is a key point on round-the-world air routes. It is the political, commercial, cultural, and transportation center of the country, with the only airport that can accommodate oceangoing vessels. Thailand’s railroads originate in Bangkok and extend to Chiang Mai, the Korat plateau, and to Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia; a corresponding network of paved highways has been constructed. Thailand’s inland waterways—a complex, interconnected system of rivers, streams, and canals—have been important arteries since ancient times; barges and boats still carry well over half the cargo moved in the central plain.