When I first came to Thailand I noted that many of my students didn't receive any presents from their parents. They didn't even get a cake. If they did get something, it would be a book or something equally unimaginative. But, it is not always like that. Thai people like adopting traditions from other cultures. Christmas is a good example of this. Thai children have seen Western movies and have seen what happens during our birthdays. So, they want the same too. Now more of my students receive presents from their parents than before. Some of them also have cakes. Though, they usually only get one candle. Or, if they have just turned say ten, they will then get eleven candles.
Thai adults might have a party for their friends. Though I know quite a few Thai people who never celebrate their birthday. They don't do anything special. Either they don't have enough money or they are just not motivated. One interesting difference with these parties is that the "birthday boy" is expected to pay for all the drinks. I have even been to parties in Thailand where all the guests received presents! On Nong Grace's birthday today, she came to school with cake and candy for all her friends! For older people, they are more likely to celebrate the 12 year cycles. For example, on their 60th and 72nd birthdays. If you have a Thai friend who is going to celebrate a birthday then it won't hurt for you to buy them a gift. They will certainly appreciate it. But, it is not really expected. So, how do Thai people traditionally celebrate their birthdays? What they do is make merit by going to the temple early in the morning and offer food to the monks. This morning was the 53rd birthday of my school. We celebrated by inviting several dozen monks and everyone came early to school to offer them food and other basic essentials.
Oakmonster (a Thai woman): When I was a kid, the traditions went like this: Very early in the morning, we went to see my grandmother to ask for her blessing, then piled onto the car to Wat Benjamabopitr to give alms to the monks and released the birds/turtles. Then I got dropped off at school with a pass from my parents to be late AND to bring in treats for my classmates. Later that night, we'd have dinner with my family and then my cousins and grandma would come over and we'd have cake and open presents. As we grew older, we lost grandma and my cousins moved away, and then the traffic got so bad that going to Wat Benj became a half day effort, so our birthdays were reduced to just dinner with family and maybe a few presents, usually from my mom's friends. Birthdays have been more of a family affair for our family. There were only a few birthday parties where friends were involved that I could remember. Heck, I didn't have a party for friends until I was in 5th grade...which I did at McDonald's. LOL. One thing that seems to be consistent though is that we celebrate birthday by TREATING OTHER PEOPLE i.e. have a party so you can feed your friends, not for them to feed you.
Betti (a foreign teacher): Most of my kids bring a large cake to school to share with everyone. One of those Thai style cakes that taste like shaving cream and plastic. But at least they look good and make good photos. Some parents leave a camera and ask teachers to take some photos for them. We always put one extra candle "for good luck next year". These kids are upper-middle class, most have Thai parents who speak little English and have never been to the "west".