Amazing Thailand
The Making of a Nation

Thailand is one of the few countries in the world which has never been colonised.

The first independent Thai Kingdom was established in 1238, but the origins of Thailand and the Thai people go back much further.

Pre-History

The central area of Indochina from the Maekhong River valley to the Khorat Plateau was inhabited as far back as 10,000 years. Linguistic scholars can trace origins of ancient Chinese to an earlier Thai language. Archaeology gives us several pointers to early development of the human race in the area. For example, in the Ban Chieng area of north-east Thailand:

Chiang Saen Pre-Historic Tools
Prehistoric tools from the Chiang Saen region of northern Thailand.
Ban Chieng Pre-Historic Artifacts
Dating from about 3,000 BC these artifacts from Ban Chieng in north-east Thailand.
Ban Chieng Musical Instruments
Ban Chieng bronze musical instruments show a high degree of design sophistication.
Ban Chieng Ceramic Pots
Ban Chieng artists and potters were equally accomplished.

People dressed well and printed their own silk textiles.

  • Rice may have been cultivated as early as 4,000 BC (China was still largely growing and consuming millet, although evidence does suggest that rice was first cultivated in the Yangtze valley c. 6500 BC)
  • Bronze metallurgy began c. 1700-1500 BC.
This pre-historic cultural development formed a nucleus of migrating people. A linguistic map of south China, north-west India and South-East Asia, as far as the islands of Indonesia, clearly shows the presence of these early Thai migrants. They settled in river valleys from the Red River (Hong River) in south China and Vietnam to the Brahmaputra River in Assam.

During the second half of the 13th century a growing pressure with the rise of the Mongol hordes under Kublai Khan forced the south China Thais to retrace their steps and return to their roots.

 

Sukhothai

The greatest concentration of these early Thais first appeared in the north of modern Thailand, around Chiang Saen and valleys to the south. They formed themselves into principalities, some of which later became independent kingdoms.

A union of Thai princes took Haripunchai from the Mons and formed Lan Na Thai (which means 'Million Thai Rice Fields'), today often referred to simply as Lanna, and drove the Khmers from Sukhothai (which means 'The Dawn of Happiness').

A Mons Village Today

A Mon Village Today


Sukhothai Phrang
Sukhothai Phrang
Sukhothai Phrang
The Kmer influence can still be seen in these Sukhothai Phrangs

The Sukhothai kingdom declared independence in 1238. Sukhothai is considered to be the first true Thai kingdom. Today many Thais view the Sukhothai period as the golden era of Thai history, an ideal state, a land of plenty, governed by just and paternal kings who ruled over peaceful, contented citizens. It developed a distinct style of its own. During this period the first Thai writing system was evolved, which became the basis for modern Thai, and the Thai form of Therava Buddhism was codified.

Within the walls of Sukhothai are the ruins of twenty wats (temples) and monuments, the greatest of which is Wat Mahathat. Still splendid in its current day setting.

Wat Mahathat Sukhothai
Wat Mahathat Sukhothai
These Sukhothai Wats show how the beauty of water was used to enhance their spiritual aspect.
Sukhothai Wat
Sukhothai Wat
The giant Buddha at Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai before and after restoration.


Giant Buddha, Wat Mahathat - 1907

Giant Buddha, Wat Mahathat - Now

Giant Buddha, Wat Mahathat - 1907
Giant Buddha, Wat Mahathat - Now


Under the rule of king Ramkamhaeng (Rama the Brave) the Sukhothai kingdom flourished and expanded as far as Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south, to the upper Maekhong River valley in Laos, and to Bago in Burma.

In 1287 Ramkamhaeng formed an alliance with two northern Thai princes, Mengai of Chiang Rai and Ngam Muang of Phayao. Mengai founded Chiang Mai ('New Town') in 1296 which became the capital of Lanna.

La Na Thai

The southern kingdom of Ayutthaya expanded rapidly by teaching the importance of religion over military might, and extended control over the Chao Phya River valley. With the rise of Ayutthaya the Sukhothai influence declined and in 1378 their seat of power moved to Phitsanulok. Sukhothai's population followed and by 1438 Sukhothai was a deserted city.

Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya began as an ancient settlement named after Rama's legendary kingdom in India.

It's importance in Thai history began when a cholera outbreak forced Phya U-Thong, the ruler of the principality of U-Thong (today known as Suphan Buri), to evacuated his people. He officially established his seat in Ayutthaya in 1350, after three years of preparation, when he assumed the title Ramathidibodi I.

The Ayutthaya kings became very powerful moving east to take Lopburi a former Khmer stronghold and then, in 1431, on to Angkor the great capital city of the Khmer empire.

Angkor, Cambodia

Angkor, Cambodia
The image shows the temple complex of Angkor. The large bluish-black rectangle is the Western Baray (reservoir), part of Angkor's famous irrigation system. The large square to its east is Angkor Thom, a fortified city. The brown spot at the centre of the square is the Bayon, a monumental structure. To its south is the fabled temple of Angkor Wat, surrounded by a wide moat. Other temples and the Eastern Baray are located round the complex. The road running south from Angkor Wat goes to the nearby town of Siem Reap. The wide bluish strip to the south is the flooded lake of Tonlé Sap.

Although the Thais were responsible for the decline and eventual collapse of Angkor, the Ayutthaya kings adopted Khmer court customs, language and culture. Unlike the paternal rulers of Sukhothai, Ayutthaya's kings were absolute monarchs and assumed the title devaraja or God King.

Ayutthaya became one of the greatest and wealthiest cities in Asia, rivalling London in its influence. From the early 16th century the Portugese established trade and supplied mercenaries to fight in continuing campaigns against the rival kingdom in Chiang Mai. They taught the Thais cannon foundry and musketry.

Ayutthaya is situated on an island in the Chao Phraya River, at the junction of the Lop Buri River and the Nam Pasak River, about 80 km north of Bangkok.

To appreciate the city as a 17th century vistor might have done, travel up the Chao Phraya River from Bangkok.

Ayutthaya from the Chao Phraya River

Weakened by the wars with Chiang Mai, Ayutthaya, was attacked by King Tabinshweti of Burma in 1549. Aided by the Portugese, the attack was repelled, but in 1569 Ayutthaya eventually fell to Tabinshweti's son in law, King Bayinnaung. The invading Burmese forces ransacked and plundered the city, forcibly transporting most of its population to Burma.

Naresuen, the eldest son of the defeated king's leading deputy, was held captive in Burma until he reached the age of 15. As soon as he returned he immediately began to gather armed followers, which he trained in guerilla warfare. He took the opportunity to declare Ayutthaya's freedom in 1584, whilst the Burmese rulers were weakened by revolts in their own provinces.

 

Although the Burmese made numerous attempts to retake Ayutthaya, Naresuen was able to assume full kingship upon his father's death in 1590. He rebuilt his kingdom and turned the tables on the Burmese with repeated attacks until the Burmese Empire itself disintegrated. He finally subdued the Khmers on his eastern border. He became known as 'Naresuen the Great' and under his rule Ayutthaya prospered, becoming the great and thriving metropolis described by 17th century European visitors.
Ayutthaya War Elephants

Ayutthayan war elephants as seen through the eyes of a 17th century French artist.

French map of Siam - 1686
Siam 1686

This French map of Siam from 1686 shows the capital city of Ayutthaya (called Judia by the French) lying along the Chao Phraya River, protected by the mountains and forests.


Large View

Ayutthaya - late 17th Century

This contemporary oil painting shows the foreigner's view of
the 'Venice of the East'.

A long period of peace and tranquil prosperity was ended when a village headman united the Burmese Empire which attacked Ayutthaya in 1760. The Burmese army was repelled but in 1767 a second Burmese invasion succeeded in capturing Ayutthaya, after a siege of 14 months. The withdrawing Burmese army sacked the city, burning and looting and melting down the gold from Buddha images. They took their booty back to Burma, together with members of the royal family and 90,000 captives.

2,000 Spires clad in gold

At one time Ayutthaya had a population of a million. Europeans wrote accounts of the fabulous wealth of the courts and the '2,000 spires clad in gold'.

The 1767 Burmese invasion left the city largely destroyed.


Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya


During the seige, a Thai general named Phya Taksin broke through the encircling Burmese and took a small band of followers to Chantaburi on the southern coast. There he assembled an army and navy. Seven months after the fall of Ayutthaya the general and his forces sailed back to the capital and expelled the Burmese occupying garrison.

He immediately moved his capital to the west bank of Bangkok, known as Thonburi, and was proclaimed king. During his reign he liberated Chiang Mai and the rest of northern Thailand from the Burmese and his generals brought Cambodia and most of the present day Laos under Thai control. When a revolt broke out in 1782, Taksin was forced to abdicate.

The Chakri Dynasty

Upon his return from the Cambodian campaign general Chakri was offered the throne. He became known as Rama I. He moved his headquarters to the more spacious Bangkok on the opposite bank of the river.

He set about restoring the confidence of his war-shattered people. Buddha images were transported from Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. Bricks from the old capital were floated down the river to build the new city walls. Master craftsmen designed and built the first permanent building in the new capital, Wat Phra Kaew, or Temple of the Emerald Buddha.


The Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok
Bangkok began as a city of canals and elephant paths on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River, just a few kilometres from the sea. The first of the new structures ordered by King Ramathibodi, later known as Rama I, was the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which was later surrounded by the grounds and buildings of the Grand Palace.

It was built in the style of the Royal Temple of the Grand Palace of Ayutthaya.

Architecture of Old Bangkok


Modern Thailand is indebted to Rama I for his cultural revival programme. He and his successors up to the present King Bhumibol, Rama IX, have transformed their country from a war-torn Asian land to a modern nation.


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