Back at home, maybe because our home country’s history is something we have done in our school days, we really do not read a lot or, at least, we don’t do very often. But, when we live in a foreign country, everything is different. All of a sudden, we start thinking how wonderful it would be to learn about our host country’s history and culture.
Going to Bangkok for a weekend, to visit the Grand palace or any other temple, any of the beautiful palaces or government buildings, only increases our curiosity and desire to learn more.
As we understand that, because we experienced it ourselves, we will help you by giving a short account of the history of Thailand or Siam, as it was called until 1932 , based on our own experience and research.
If you are interested in reading more about Thailand history, you could go to our page Things to do in Pattaya or visit the National Museum Volunteers’ website, a worth visiting site.
Southeast Asia History
” Southeast Asia was and is a distinct place, but one of infinite variety. The region’s unique environment, combining a hot, wet, monsoons climate, dense forest cover and extensive waterways with periodic natural catastrophes, has preserved exceptional diversity while resisting large unifying organisation. It has not been congenial to the kind of empires that dominated elsewhere and integrated substantial territories, and thereby too much dominated historical narratives. Southeast Asia coherence has lain in the fact of diversity and its genius in managing it. Legal-bureaucratic states came late to the region and would dominate its history only in the twenty century…
Southeast Asia history merits the attention of the rest of the world for three crucial reasons, in the addition to the often-acknowledged diversity. Its dangerous tectonic interfaces can determine the world’s climate and the survival of our species; its women were more autonomous economically and socially than those in other societies whose histories are known; and its societies had other mechanisms for cultural and economic coherence than those of the states which dominate much history elsewhere. These factors help to make the region a “Critical Crossroads”. *
* We found this interesting comments while reading “A History of Southeast Asia“, by Anthony Reid, a more than interesting and clarifying book very much worth reading .
What Reids meant with that, is that the two most destructive volcanic eruptions of modern times which darkened and cooled the whole planet producing years without summer in Europe, occurred at Tambora in Sumbawa in 1815 and Krakatau, situated at opposite ends of the extremely eruptive zone of Java, Bali and Lombok, also famous for their high fertility. Another cooling episodes had their origins in tropical volcanoes, which have the capacity to affect the whole planet through prevailing wind patterns, and Southeast Asia’s are the prime suspects.
But is the second Southeast Asia’s characteristic that we found the most fascinating, and it is the fact that Southeast Asia’s gender pattern was unusually different from that of its neighbours as well as it was the trade pattern from those in China, India and the Middle East. Until the 19th century, Southeast Asia’s women played economical roles which were equivalent , although different , to those of men having, as a result, more autonomy and agency than their European, Chinese, Indian or Arab counterparts. They monopolised the textile and ceramics production, shared agricultural tasks in which planting, harvesting and foraging were part of women’s domain and most importantly, it was the women who did the most of the marketing and business. It was so that Chinese and European male traders dealt directly with local women.
Southeast Asia, a land of diversity, were the women’s role in commerce and business was primordial and exclusive, until the 19th century at least, shaped and framed this nation’s history, Thai history...
Thai Kingdoms: Early Influences
The history of the early people who lived in what much later became to be Thailand, was a prolonged and subtle process. Because Thailand wasn’t defined yet, you will see that we will refer to three different regions : Chao Phraya Plains and Chao Phraya Basin and the peninsula The first of them, the Chao Phraya Plains is the flat region just south the hills and north to the Chao Phraya Basin which is the area that drains into the Chao Phraya river.The land situated to the south of the Chao Phraya Basin,and which narrows more and more toward the south, is the Peninsula, which is very easy to understand with just looking at map of the region.
In the last few centuries BCE, Mediterranean traders have already reached India while Arab and Indian sailors mastered the technique of crossing the Indian Ocean using the rhythm of the monsoons , what meant that after their arrival to the southeast asian coasts , the ships had to wait until the next season for navigating back west with favourable winds. As a result, always according to Chinese records, by the fourth or fifth centuries BCE there were already settlements in Southeast Asian peninsula using portage routes to connect the trade between the Indian Ocean and South China seas.
These temporary stays triggered a gradual process of Indianization because not only traders and merchants arrived, but Indian princes who set themselves up to rule over those city states recently created and marrying into the local population to legitimize their authority. As it happened, along with commerce, Indian art, architecture and beliefs started to arrive. Therefore, cities -states with strong Indian influence began to appear in this strategic – trading area. Indian writings of this era mention Suvarnadvipa or Suvarnabhumi, a land of gold, a term arisen due to gold found in Sumatra and on the peninsula, but also because of other economic opportunities.
The Han Chinese who had became interested in the peninsula as provider of exotic products , were not alone. By the first century CE , European elements as Roman coins and medallions had reached several sites on the middle and upper peninsula, revealing the existence of a trading route.
An Interesting note…
” The process once called the “Indianization” of Southeast Asia has been better explained by Sheldon Pollok (2006) as the rapid spread of a Sanskrit cosmopolis from a few priestly centers in northern India throughout all the commercially linked power centres of South and Southeast Asia. Having been for centuries a sacred “language of Gods”, taught to a few priestly men so that they could recite the activities of the gods in the Vedas, Sanskrit embarked on a new career as a universal legitimating language of power around the beginning of the Common Era.
We might explain this as the firsts stage of globalising religion, contemporary with the Roman Empire giving birth to Christian universalism in the West and with Han power extending a Chinese cosmopolis through Northeast Asia. While no comparable political centre arose in Southeast Asia at this or any other time, those engaged in the multiple maritime exchanges which ultimately linked Roman and Han empires must have been unusually receptive to universal ideas.
To judge by the inscriptions, by the fifth century CE Sanskrit has expanded not only throughout Southern India and Sri Lank but also to Southeast Asian sites sin Borneo, Java, the Peninsula, the lower Mekong and centres of Chamic ( Austronesian) settlement in what is today central Viet Nam. …It marked the beginning of writing, of kingship ( presented as universal, not bounded power), of scriptural religion ( primarily though Buddhism) and of Literature.
This expansionary impetus was facilitated by the mobility of Buddhism. Although Buddhism rejected Sanskrit as identified with the established hierarchical order, by the third century CE there had been a return to using the universal language , now purged of its offensive features. For various reasons early Buddhism established a symbiosis with trading networks with made possible considerable expansion of the Indian Ocean trade in the first centuries of the Common Era…” *
* Extracted from ” A History of Southeast Asia, Critical Crossroads “, by Anthony Reid. We found this book really fascinating , really wroth reading if you are interested in knowing more about Southeast Asia history.
According to archeological findings, the early centuries of the CE the Chao Phraya Plains is marked by the pass from prehistory to history: monumental buildings and inscriptions appeared, along with Chinese records .Then, from the sixth or seventh century CE, larger settlements emerged all through this region which were influenced by cultural imports from India, where urban societies had developed thousand years earlier.
Clearly, the centuries before the rise of the Thai, the economic and geopolitical reality of Southeast Asia , especially the peninsula which later would be Thailand and Burma, was a complex and diverse crossroad enriched with different , strong influences. But three in particular, were specifically formative on what became Thailand: Dvaravati, Srivijaya and the Khmer empire.
When reading about Dvaravati period, we find that they were Mon people who lived in the area before the Thai. But, who were these people?
The diverse language families that today dominate Southeast Asia moved southward from what is today southern China and the eastern Himalayas. They passed by land or sea into Mainland Southeast Asia bringing a related set of languages we now call the Austroasiatic family, including the ancestors of Mon and Khmer . According to some experts, the Mon-Khmer moved with the spread of the new rice agriculture from the 3rd millennium BCE, dominating the rivers system until the arrivals of speakers of the Tai and Tibeto- Burman languages several millennia later.
From the 6th to 12th centuries CE, towns and small – scale states mushroomed in the Isan Plateau, the lower Mekong basin and some forty moated cities developed alongside rivers in the Chao Phraya Plain which had an economical relationship through the exchange of goods not only among them, but also with places located further toward east and west. This was a time of increasing trade, both internal and external, the towns were sited on trade routes by river and land.
Their rulers of these city-states adopted Indic titles, moats were built around their cities, temples being constructed and the kings or rulers financially sported craftsmen with skills and expertise in metalwork, stucco and terracotta. But although these cities have a commercial relationship, shared religious practices, art styles and the Mon language , as seen at the inscriptions, they didn’t have a political-administrative relationship, they were totally independent city – states.
When we read about this period-city-art style, we discover that there is still a debate around it. We will find many sources defining Dvaravati as a kingdom. But also, will see that several art historians adopted Dvaravati as a general description for art and architecture styles with a marked Indian influences that developed in the Chao Phraya Plains starting at the U Thong city, today Suphanburi province, and that later, spread in all four cardinal directions where Ratchaburi, Kanchanaburi , Prachinburi and reaching Nakhon Pathom in the south are major examples that that be seen today. But also, Dvaravati was also used for naming the period from the sixth to eleventh century when these styles flourished.
The name Dvaravati , meaning ” possessing gates”, appears as Krishna’s city in Indian texts, and was used as a place-name in ancient India, Arakan,Burma and Cambodia. Debate still persists on Dvaravati’s exact location as one of the many city-states of this period, with Nakhon Pathom, home city of Phara Pathom Chedi, favoured due to its size. Sukhothai’s inscriptions refer to a city that is probably Nakhon Pathom as nakhon phra krit, the city of Lord Krishna, suggesting this identification may be right.
Some 30 km northeast of the city of U-Thong, on the bend of the river, was built the city of Suphanburi, home city of the family linage who played an important role not only in Sukhothai’s history but also, Ayutthaya. Prince U -Thong, founder of the great capital of Siam , belonged to the Suphanburi family. This city, might be the site of the legendary Suvarnabhumi, mentioned in very old Buddhist writing. However, the first confirmed historical settlement was from the Dvaravati period, when the city was known as Muang Thawarawadi Si Suphannaphumi ( ” the Davaravati city of Suvarnabhumi”).
During the Dvaravati period, these city-states embraced Theravada Buddhism received from missionaries via Sri Lanka and it is believed that the Thai were initially converted to this faith when came in contact with the Mon.
Reading about this period in Thai story, among several publications, we found very interesting information reading “A History of Ayutthaya, Siam in Early Modern World” by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, a book that is worth buying and reading, if you were interested in Thai history.
During the 6th and 7th centuries, the reunification of China under the Sui ( 590-618) and Tang dynasties, and the demise of long -distance trade with Persia, created new opportunity for Southeast Asian traders It was then when Srivijaya , a sea-base empire flourished from the 7th to 13th century CE, at the same time the Dvaravati flourished in the Chao Phraya Plains. A trading-net of cities, Srivijaya was based in the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, and from there , influenced much of Southeast Asia.
Although historical records and archaeological evidence are scarce, it appears that by the 7th century , Srivijaya has established sovereignty over large areas of Sumatra , western Java and much of the Malay Peninsula. Dominating the Malacca and Sunda Straits, Srivijaya controlled both the spice route traffic and local trade , serving, in this way, as a entrepôt for the Chinese, Malay and Indian markets, clearly, it was an extremely strategic position. The maritime prowess was recorded in a Borobudur bas relief of the called ” Borobudur ship”, the 8th century wooden double outrigger vehicles of maritime Southeast Asia.
The Khmer empire might also have been a tributary state in its early stages. The khmer King, Jayavarman II, was mentioned to have spent years in the court of Sailendra in Java before returning to present day Cambodia , around 790 CE , to establish the Khmer empire. Angkor temple was built marking the beginning of the Angkor era.
The Srivijaya’s influence also reached the south of the Thai peninsula , shaping the early culture of southern present-day Thailand, as it could be seen in the reconstructed – Srivijaya style pagoda located in the temple of Borom That in the city of Chaiya, Surat Thani province. The city of Chaiya was probably a regional centre of the Srivijaya kingdom.
According to various historical sources, a complex and cosmopolitan society with a refined culture , deeply influenced by Vajrayana Buddhism flourished in the Srivijayan capital. Srivijaya and its kings were instrumental in the spread of Buddhism as they established it in places they conquered.The Buddhist art and architecture of Srivijaya was influenced by the Indian art of the Gupta and Pala Empire. The Borobudur Temple is one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world, and was built in the 8th and 9th centuries CE during the reign of the Syailendra dynasty in Java island, Indonesia.
The Khmer, whose vast empire was based at Angkor, was the most influential of the three. They were master builders and whose a powerful force and ritual magnetism influenced, by the 11th century, not only actual Cambodia, but a large part of east and north of present day Thailand as well as other parts of Southeast Asia.
Over the same Dvaravati era a different society and culture was developing to the east. Around the Tonle Sap lake, farmers developed techniques for storing water which enabled to increase the production of a large agricultural surplus enough for supporting a large population. Local chiefs gained control over land investing the profits in military power and ritual display. By the 9th century, they had built a capital at Angkor that surpassed in splendour anywhere else in the region.
From the ninth century onwards, Angkor’s magnetism was also felt in the Chao Phraya Plain. Angkor – style temples were built at the passes on the three main routes from the east down into the plain. Elsewhere Angkorian- style temples were built in existing Dvaravati towns, such as Nakhon Pathom, Lopburi, Ratchaburi and Petchaburi.
These places were considered to be the towns of the future, perhaps because the Khmer- style water management that supported a larger and healthier population. The people of U-Thong may have move 30 km northeast to Suphanburi where the town’s design is a fascinating mix: built in Dvaravati style , sited on a bend of the river but instead of a conch -shape moat, it has a rectangular one and also, a relic stupa built in the center , both in Angkorian style. Petchaburi, was also sited on the bend of a river with a wall and a square moat, a Bayon- style temple, and possibly a relic stupa in the centre. At the same time, more Angkor -influenced settlements appeared at Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai, on the river systems stretching to the north and in Phimai and Phanon Run, in the northeast .
In the Chao Phraya Plain, the adoption of Angkorian styles are irregular. Most likely, some local rulers chose to associate with Angkor through marriage arrangements with the Angkor rulers, and so, sending symbolic tributes, building monuments. May be feeling that associating with the most powerful and magnificent ritual centre of tear region would gain favours for their towns. What was spreading was Angkor’s ritual magnetism, not its military and bureaucratic power. There was a city where Angkor’s influence, still can be see today in its Angkor-style buildings , was clearly stronger: Lopburi.
Towards the end of the10th century CE, settlement spread northward from the lower Chao Phraya plain. A Khmer – influenced town appeared at Sukhothai, may be in the 10th or 11th century , and several more small sites have been found in the upper reaches of the Chao Phraya river’s tributaries. The legend of Queen Chamadevi, a Mon princess from Lopburi, that goes north to found a new city , Hariphunchai ( nowadays Lamphun), it is a tale of how civilisation was brought up to a remote area, giving origin, centuries later, to the Lanna kingdom. Although one chronicle dates this immigration to 663 CE, archaeological evidence favours the 11th or 12th century.
In the same era, according to the first records found in old poems, stories and chronicles, people speaking languages from the Tai family began moving southward from southern China, mainly Yunnan province, into the upper reaches of the Chao Phraya river system, in parts of what are now northern Burma, Laos, northern Vietnam, and most significantly the northern territories of that became Thailand. The Tai’s life support was the cultivation of rice, so they were looking for lands where they could do what knew best.
But these lands weren’t empty, they were the lands of the Mon and Khmers, so the Tai, gradually settled in but it was not an easy process. In some places there were confrontations; in others , they may have triumphed by bringing diseases for which the isolated local communities had no defensive immunity, as was the case in Harinpuchai where there was a devastating epidemic; and in other places, the settlement was done through fraternity and compromise.
The Tai who arrived in the Chao Phraya Plain were product of a turbulent history, they came down fleeing the Han Chinese who violently persecuted them. So, they became great warriors, by fate and for their own survival. By the 13th century , the Tai and their warrior chiefs were settling down along with older Mon- Khmer residents and people who had drifted from the city-states of the lower Chao Phraya Plain, and perhaps, also from Angkor. It was then that a new identity for this blend of ethnics groups started to emerge: the Thais.
If only I’d known….
The Tai people brought with them their animist religion , in which, the spirits of trees need to be pacified, and the ancestors can be powerful helpers. Shamans, in a state of trance, make contact with the spirit world to perform good or evil. Although their customs and beliefs were blended with the other people populating the region, given ground to Buddhism, Tai’s animistic practices are very much alive : visiting a traditional Lanna house would mean to find a whole animist paraphernalia and in Chiang Man city, even today, ornate lintels are carved with floral relief designs to sanctify and potentiate the inner domestic part of the house where domestic spirits live. So, this might be an explanation for all many animist beliefs very much alive in today Thais lives, and which we found difficult to grasp, being Thailand a Buddhist country.
And so, the emergence of the confederations of towns in Lanna, Lan Xang ( Luang Prabang in Laos), Sukhothai and other northern cities , over the 12th to 14th centuries was a product of many causes, not only of the arrival of the Tai but also a northward migration of people from the lower Chao Phraya Plain, intermittent pressure from China and , perhaps, also development in trade. The arrival of Buddhism from Sri lanka and Burma combined with some kind of social unrest , forced a transition from warrior – dominated to a Buddhist- influenced kingship.
In the same era, a similar confederation developed to the south, near the coast of the gulf, but also from the sea: Ayutthaya. It was later, during the late 15th century, that the northern cities of the Chao Phraya Plain, Sukhothai among them, started a gradual process of merging, that lasted possibly decades, with the important port – city , paving the way for the glorious Ayutthaya capital of Siam Kingdom, in the 16th century.
But we shouldn’t oversee that at the same time, an historical and culturally rich Thai state remained independent in the North, occupying an area of hills which acted as a natural shield protecting it from invasions: the Lanna kingdom.
So, we will expand our information a little more on these three kingdoms. As they were contemporary, we will follow their geographical location, from north to south. So we will start with Lanna, followed by Sukhothai to end with Ayutthaya
Lanna, Kingdom of the North
” In the legend of Chamadevi. a Mon princess from Lao- Lopburi goes to found a new city of Harinpunchai ( present Lamphun). She travels north with 500 monks, 500 scholars,and a caravan of sculptors, painters, jewellers, goldsmiths, and other craftsmen. She provides areas in the new city for those born from the footprints of elephants , rhinos and wild buffaloes, interpreted to be mean the local hunter-gatherer population. This is a story of bringing civilisation to a remote area. One chronicle dates this immigration to 663 CE, but archeological evidence favours the 11th or 12th century.” *
* From “ History of Ayutthaya, Siam in Early Modern World“, by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit
From Harinphunchai, strategically located, Chamadevi dominated the surrounding area controlling the Chiang Mai valley and the Ping river respectively, the most fertile land in the area and the major means of communication.
But around at the same time, from the 10th century onwards, some of the Tais who had migrated from Southern China, gradually began to settle in the area setting petty city states, which frequently were in conflict with one other. In this scenario, in the 13th century, king Mengrai, leader of Chiang Saen, one of the most powerful of these states, took over nearby states setting up a temporary capital at Chiang Rai in 1262. But as this location wasn’t a good strategic base to have control of the area of Chiang Mai valley, so, the king after a long time and strategy, seized the throne of Harinpunchai, calling this kingdom Lanna.
According to the legend, in 1291, King Mengrai found the place where the capital of his kingdom will be located. In 1296 the building of Chiang Mai started. In 1317 king Mengrai died ending a remarkable reign that spanned nearly 60 years and that had unified much of what is now Northern Thailand into the kingdom of Lanna with Chiang Mai as it capital.
As Chiang Mai continued to grow, the power of Lanna started to attract the interest of the fast- expanding Ayutthaya. Chiang Mai was never permanently merged nor incorporated into the Southern and powerful kingdom, reaching it olden age by mid 15th century.
The kingdom of Lanna was finally conquered by the Burmese in 1557 and for the next two centuries its capital Chiang Mai was Burma’s vassal state until the late 18th century when General Taksin forced the Burmese out the country. The Lanna kingdom eventually became part of Siam in 1892 and was gradually dissolved and condensed into an area entered around Chiang Mai until 1932 when became a province of Siam.
Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, Kingdoms of the Central Plains and Chao Phraya river basin
A Khmer town appeared probably around 1200, and later, in the 13th century , may be due to a great influx of people, a new town was built to the south. The town had the classic Angkor-influenced design with a square shape, a relic stupa in its centre, a barai outside the walls, for water management.
At the end of the 13th century, Sukhothai emerged as the chief place in the Northern Cities. Its population seems to have come from both south and north. Around the city, there are some thirty moated sites similar to those built in the Chao Phraya Plain and Isan Plateau over the previous five centuries , so they may be part of the drift northward told in the Chamadevi story. To the west of the town, there are earthworks to direct water flowing down from the hills, a characteristic of the Tai settlements.
Sukhothai‘s art, architecture, water management, and language show that the place was a cultural crossroads, absorbing influences from Angkor, Pagan, the Mon country, Lanna and from the peninsula. The cultural innovation of Sukhothai wasn’t the work only of the “Tai genius” but the product of a collision of different people, a social crisis and the influx of new ideas. It was in Sukhothai that the first Khmer-derived Thai alphabet, which is the base of which is used today, was created by King Ramkhamhaeng.
The great trade-route city of Sukhothai seems to have been the principal focus and source of Buddhist culture in Siam, for it had direct contact with Sri Lanka, which, after the decline of Buddhism in India in the 12th century, became the principal home of Theravada Buddhism. Sukhothai’s Buddhist art seem to have been evolved as an attempt to capture the quality of early- medieval Sri Lankan sculptures and architecture and elements from Dvaravati sculpture.
This is evident in the “lotus-bud” chedi, unique to Sukhothai architecture, as well as the unique images of Buddha. The developed versions of the Buddha images are easily recognisable because they are marked by an extremely smooth, round modelling of the body and face, without any clearly defined planes. The entire figure gives an impression of great elegance; the full walking Buddha , an original Sukhothai invention , emphasise a kind of swaying, sinuous, boneless grace in the execution of the legs and arms. One of the most impressive colossal images of this type is the brick and stucco icon at the Wat Mahathat.
The economy was as equally developed as its great cultural achievements. Although the economic base was rice cultivation supplemented by fishing, commerce in both fresh produce along with Sukhotai‘s own distinctive ceramics wares thrived generating trade contacts with, among others, China, Burma ( now Myanmar), Sri Lanka, Java and Persia.
The current concept of Thai kingship has evolved through 800 years of absolute rule. But it was in Sukhothai, where there was a shift generated by the influence of Buddhism that had came for Sri Lanka, resulting in a kingship based on two concepts derived from Hinduism and Theravada Buddhist beliefs.The first concept is based on the warrior-ruler, in which the king derives his powers from military might. The second is based on the Theravada Buddhist concept of “Dhammaraja” where the king should rule his people in accordance with Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha.
In the mid- fourteen century, the political centre of the northern cities shifted to Phitsanoluk. Sukhothai‘s political dominance might have lasted less than a century, but it was in religion and arts that the city’s importance and influence was greater and much more lasting.
The city of Si Satchanalai, which means ” City of Good People”, was founded in 1250. When King Ban Means ruled the kingdom, he gave his brother Ramkhamhaeng control over the town of Si Satchanalai. It was so that became a Sukhothai ‘s royal succession tradition to have a crown prince or heir to the throne to rule Si Satchanalai.
After Ramkhamhaeng’s death, Sukhothai’s political influence may have declined, but along with Si Satchanalai ( this name was changed for Sawankhalok during the Ayutthaya‘s political prominence period), both cities remained being large production centres for ceramics and still able to maintain their trading and industrial roles supplying overseas trade, during the mid-fourteen century, when their kilns filled much of the resulting ” Ming gap”, after China restricted ceramic exports.
Even later, around 1400 to the 1480s, the Sukhothai kilns turned out celadon plates with distinctive fish and floral designs, while Si Satchanalai‘s was known for a distinctive green celadon glaze through better clay and hotter firing, along with a darker celadon in jars and bowls, known as Sawankhalok ware, until the 1580s , very much into the period of Ayutthaya‘s political prominence.
Sukhothai and the other northern cities remained as independent city – states very much into Ayutthaya’s dominance period, until they gradually merged with Siam’s capital , a process that possibly spread over decades and reigns. By the late 15th centuries, Ayutthaya started to feel its consequences evidenced by tensions in the government which ended with the northern nobles taking control over Ayutthaya .
In 1776, Si Satchanalai had the same tragic fate than Ayutthaya when the Burmese army attacked again the capital of Siam and both cities were destroyed and burnt. Years later, the city was rebuilt, present day Sawankhalok , the old city was abandoned, and left in ruins which could be seen today when visiting Si Satchanalai Historical Park, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
” In 686 of the lesser era, a year of the rat, the Buddha image of Lord Phananchoeng was established. In 712, a year of the tiger, on Friday, the sixth waning day of the fifth month at three hours and nine segments, the great city of Si Ayutthaya was established. In 731, a year of the cock, Wat Phra Ram was established. At that time, King Ramathibodi died”..
Thus begins the Luang Prasoet chronicle of Ayutthaya, compiled in 1681 from ” documents written by astrologers, documents from the library, and events in the royal chronicles.” What is fascinating in this extract is what is missing. About the city’s founder, all the chronicle records is his death. At Ayutthaya , in contrast to Sukhothai and Lanna, there are not inscriptions telling the warrior glory, no ballads or legends securely dated to the city’s early years. Ayutthaya was a different kind of place.” *
* We found this very interesting information, while reading ” A History of Ayutthaya, Siam in the Early Modern World, by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit . This is a book that we think is very well worth reading, if you are interested in knowing more about Ayutthaya ‘s history.
The date described in the chronicle above quoted, it is equivalent to March, 4th ,1351. Although this date is mentioned as Ayutthaya’s official foundation, the city already existed, but as an ambitious port-city, a maritime power focused in becoming a dominant force in the trading world of the gulf and peninsula in the post- Sirivijaya era. From the lat 13th century, helped by its strategic location at the bank of the Chao Phraya river and not so far from the river’s mouth, it has been sending expeditions south down the peninsula, to get resources and gain a share of the coastal trade, becoming China’s major trading partner in Southeast Asia.
Unlike other port-cities in the archipelago, Ayutthaya had a large hinterland, accessible by waterways. Driven by the commercial logic of controlling the trade routes and supply sources on which its commercial prominence depended, Ayutthaya set out to become a territorial power, a project that drew the city into a complex relationship with the northern cities located in its not so far area of influence.
Ayutthaya didn’t quickly conquer and absorb these cities in the 15th century; the relations with the old Sukhothai kingdom and other Northern Cities were more subtle and complex than a simple story of military conquest: Sukhothai remained an important ritual centre; Phitsanulok remained the key strategic centre and for long periods , the effective capital; and the northern armies remained critical for neutralising Lanna’s ambitions. The rulers of the Northern Cities retained their status, and their capitals became more splendid.
An interesting note:
At this point , we would like to share with you an appealing interpretation , based on old resources, about the political- power relations between Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. You could read much more in : A History of Ayutthaya, Siam in Early Modern World, by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phogpaichit.
” The idea that Ayutthaya “absorbed” Sukhothai is based on a model of unique sovereignty and the Westphalia system of states in modern Europe. But these concepts were alien to this region in this era when each city was largely independent. Power was not unique and sovereign but many layered. One ruler might defeat another, demand homage, and extract some resources, but the subordinate was still a king and still ruled. Overlords did not impose any administrative control.
Phiset Jiajanphong has offered a more subtle interpretation of the relation between Ayutthaya and the northern Cities . The Suphaburi family at Ayutthaya developed close marriages ties with the Sukhothai ruling clan…… In these reciprocal marriages alliances much more was exchanged between the two regions than royal women. The queens moved to their new homes with an entourage of nobles, monks, craftsmen and retainers. At the same time, northern nobles moved south to fulfil the aggressive merchant city’s need for soldiery.
The Portuguese a century later recorded that in Ayutthaya ” the men who are knights and who are involved in warfare…come mostly from the regions where can be found in the cities of Sawankhaloke and Sukhothai”. Others probably migrated to a city of such evident wealth and opportunity. Climate may also have had a role. From the early 14th to early 16th, rainfall was below the average. Food production may have been affected more in the Northern Cities , where agriculture depended on the immediate rainfall, than around Ayutthaya, where water was drawn from the rivers.”
The fusion between Ayutthaya and the Northern Cities was driven not so much by army force as by the intertwining of the Suphanburi and Sukhothai ruling families and also by Ayutthaya’s gradual absorption of people, culture, language, aesthetics and administrative practice from this northern region. In early 16th century, amid political tensions between the crown and nobles but also between the nobility, northern nobles became kingmakers at Ayutthaya and this port city, base on trade and commerce, became the most rich, beautiful and powerful city of Southeast Asia. Across the 15th and early 16th century, Ayutthaya became much more like an inland capital with splendid monuments and a reputation as a centre of religion, learning, literature and craftsmanship.
But Ayutthaya wasn’t alone in this geopolitical Southeast Asia map. Parallel to the Chao Phraya Basin‘s history, where Ayutthaya was flourishing indisputably as its centre, to the west , crossing the Tenasserim Range, the history of the Irrawaddy Basin was also developing with a new political centre located in the delta zone. A new state, with its capital in Pegu, was stablished and was also oriented to the rising trade in the Indian Ocean, but with a particular characteristic: this state was dominated from the start by the Burmese warriors princes .
Within this similarity between the Irrawaddy and Chao Phraya histories lay the seeds of conflict. The dynasty of both centres developed pretensions to extend their trade networks even wider, over the possession of two areas of commercial and strategic importance: Chiang Mai, which commanded the trade route northward into China; and second and more important, the neck of the peninsula with its portage routes between the Indian Ocean and South China Seas. The value of this route increased after the Portuguese captured Melaka in 1511 and dominated the straits, and so, inducing Asian traders to look for alternative routes.
So, Ayutthaya, avoiding going south to the straits of Melaka to reach the Indian Ocean, between 1440 and 1490 took control of a much short way: the portage route located at the neck of the peninsula. In this way, the goods shipped in Ayutthaya, came down along the Chao Phraya river to Kui, a port in the Gulf , then,crossed the peninsula along the Tenasserin river reaching the Indian Ocean at the port city of Mergui.
Yet, the involvement of Ayutthaya on the upper peninsula brought the city into an intense conflict with Pegu, which shows how important the Indian Ocean trade and the portage route had became to the two main political centres. As consequence, during an intense period of campaigns and wars, Pegu armies launched three attacks on Ayutthaya in 1548, 1563/4 and 1568/9 when the great city fell and capitulated.
This year, 1569, also marked the final act of fusion between Ayutthaya and the northern cities with the northern nobles taking control of the city, displacing the old elite. A process that paved the way to King Naresuan, from a Phitsanulok ruling family, for ascending to the throne in 1590. This fusion strongly shaped the administrative systems, religious sculpture, literary production and the Thai language of Siam.
The dispute between Ayutthaya and Burma resulted in a division of spheres of influence: to the north, Burma has taken control over Lanna extending its influence across to Laxang ( Luan Prabang, today Laos); to the south, Ayutthaya controlled the portage route across the upper peninsula, and extending its influence towards east along the coast to the Khmer capital of Lovek.
For the next 150 years, this division remained stable with almost no warring between Ayutthaya and Burma. This decline in violence paved the way for an age of peace, commerce and prosperity. The shift from war to trade transformed the Ayutthaya’s monarchy, which after Naresuan’s death, there was no king leading an army to war. Kings became the chiefs merchants in the maritime trading economy, and the crown became incredibly wealthy. So, very high budgets were destined to religious construction and new forms of rituals. Also, during Narai‘s reign ( 1656-1688), Ayutthaya sought association with the glittering courts in the outside world, first with Safavid Persia and then with Bourbon France.
An Interesting Note:
” The palace housed several other storehouses for valuable goods including European articles imported from Dutch Batavia, porcelain from China, silks from Japan, and other textiles from India. A list of gifts sent from Ayutthaya to French royalty in the 1680s reads like an inventory of a museum of Asian luxuries : Japanese furniture, silverware, pottery and weaponry; Chinese cabinets, silk and porcelain reckoned “the best and most curious of all the Indies: Persian and Indian carpets; and countless figurines, powder boxes, flasks, and curiosities.” *
* We found this interesting extract while reading “A History of Ayutthaya, Siam in the Early Modern World“, by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit :
Ayutthaya’ s economy was strongly based on commerce and trade which was heighten by it strategic location at the bank of Chao Phraya river, a short distance from the gulf and thus, directly linked with trading routes that connected west and east. As a result of this, Ayutthaya’s society was strongly focused on commerce and had a cosmopolitan nature. Elements of Mon, Khmer, migrant Tai, Chinese, Malay, and Indian origin live in the progressive city since its early days.
If only I’d known…
- We found this interesting social description of Ayutthaya which were written down by Ma Huan, a Chinese visitor of those times, who noted the prominent role of women, an eloquent indicator of a society with a strong emphasis in commerce. You always could read more in ” History of Ayutthaya, Siam in Early Modern World”, by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit :
” … It is their custom that all affairs are managed by their wives; both the king of the country and the common people, if they have matters with require thought and deliberation- punishments light and heavy, all trading transactions great and small – they all follow the decisions of their wives, for the mental capacity of the wives certainly exceeds that of the men…”
- That was in the past, In Ayutthaya times, but if you look around in present days, you will see that generally there is a woman seated at the cashier of any shop, street stall, shopping malls, hospitals, restaurants. It might be this the explanation for this Thai custom?
With Naresuan’s reestablishment of control over the portage route in the 1590, and the abrupt decline of wars, an important trading age of began in the great city. In this era, two new factors transformed Ayutthaya’s commerce. First, the arrival of the Dutch, French and British. Although Siam produced little that the Europeans markets wanted except pepper, Ayutthaya become important in the “country trade” . In this way, the Dutch established a factory in Ayutthaya from 1608 , using the city a a base to trade their home goods and aiming to earn Japanese silver.
Secondly, Ayutthaya became a great entreport between east and west, after controlling the portage route. To the east laid the great market and production centre of China, the more stable and prosperous Japan and the Spanish Manila. To the west , laid the three flourishing Islamic empires of Ottoman Turkey, Safavid Persia and Mughal India. Ayutthaya became a trade center for the exchange of high-value goods between these rich places toast and west.
Being an entrepôt at the crossroads of multiple networks had profound effects on Ayutthaya’s society and politics. The city became extraordinary cosmopolitan. Commerce was inseparable from politics. Foreign trading groups became involved in the affairs of the court and nobility.
Ayutthaya’s greatest volume of trade was with China, and such was the importance of the relationship that the city entered willingly into a tributary relationship with the Chinese emperors. Therefore, Chinese merchants and workers settled in Ayutthaya and many of them rose to position of power and wealth. Muslim merchants came from India and Japanese and Persians followed.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive , in 1511, at the time of their ventures in Malacca, and a year after they had conquered Goa.They received permission to settle in Ayutthaya in return for supplying guns and ammunition to the king.
The Spanish arrived toward the end of the same century, followed by the Dutch and the British in the early 17th century, followed by the French.
Whatever languages the population of Ayutthaya spoke in the city’s early years, Thai gradually came to dominate, but this language, in turn, was also a product of merging traditions. The Thai language which evolved in Ayutthaya , and which is the base of modern Thai, differs greatly from the other languages of the Tai linguistic family, including that of Lanna, due to its Mon and Khmer influences. Mon contributed with many basic words, but the influence of Khmer was much deeper, including multiple pronouns to reflect status, as it is reflected in the current Royal Thai language. The process of forming this new hybrid language had began in Sukhothai, as shown in the Sukhothai inscriptions, but it was intensified at Ayutthaya.
During the Ayutthayan period the idea of kingship changed. Due to ancient Khmer tradition in the region, Brahmins took charge in the royal coronation and the Hindu concept of kingship was applied to the status of the leader who was treated as a reincarnation of Hindu Gods.The official titles of the kings varied : Indra, Shiva and Vishnu or Rama, being the latest the most popular.
However, Buddhist influence was also still evident, as many times the king’s title and “unofficial” name was “Dhammaraja”. But a third, older concept called “Devaraja” , which , in turned, had been borrowed by the Khmer Empire from the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of Java, was taking hold. The concept centered on the idea that the king was an incarnation of the god Vishnu and that he was a Bodhisattva (enlightened one), therefore basing his power on his religious power, his moral power, and his purity of blood.
The king, portrayed by state interests as a semi-divine figure, then became an object of worship and veneration to his people. The king was chief administrator, chief legislator, and chief judge, with all laws, orders, verdict and punishments theoretically originating from his person.
The king’s powers and titles were seen by foreign observers as proof that the king was an absolute monarch, by European standards . However, in Siamese tradition the duty and responsibility of the king was seen as developed from the ancient Indian theories of royal authority, which resemble Enlightened Absolutism , although the emphasis is not on rationality but on Dhamma, the teachings of Lord Buddha. For four centuries these kings ruled Ayutthaya, presiding over some of the greatest period of cultural, economic, and military growth in Thai history only disrupted when the Burmese army invaded the city. King Narai’s era is regarded as the time when Ayutthaya was at its peak, but, the dynastic convulsions that followed his death in 1688, weakened the city-state and closed it to any significant foreign relations. In 1767, after a two years siege, Burma’s army broke through and they utterly destroyed the city. Ruins replaced the magnificent capital .
Ayutthaya, capital of Siam, at the hight of its power was one of the richest and most magnificent cities in Asia. It was a great capital with hundreds of temples and palaces, canals and rivers and a port frequented by merchants of many nations. At one stage, people of so many nationalities were settled here, many of whom lived in their own ghettos and had their own docks for the export of rice, spices, timber and hides. This great capital city became known in Europe as the Venice of East, especially in the 17th century.
Today, Ayutthaya , that magnificent capital of Siam, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ruins of ancient temples and other monuments are widely scattered on the island of Ayutthaya and surrounding area.
The settlement of a new capital city.
During the siege, about a year before Ayutthaya fell, a Siamese general named Taksin managed to break out of the city with five hundred troops and he headed southeast toward the east coast, Rayong, far away from Burmese influence. He was too late to save Ayutthaya, but at Chantaburi and along the eastern coast he built up an army of 5,000.
With a land attack impractical,Taksin assembled a fleet of ships and sailed up the Chao Phraya toward Thonburi where he overpowered the Burmese forces installed there, sailed up and drove the invaders out of Ayutthaya, back into their own country.
Ayutthaya was no longer habitable, so Taksin as the new leader, had to choose a location for the new capital.
He selected Thonburi, where there was already a thriving community, a port and fortifications and where the river and canals formed a moat which would protect the city against potential attacks .
Taksin was crowned King and within 15 years Siam would be revitalized, poised itself to launch itself into a new era.
Kingdom of Thonburi
An interlude filled by civil war was ended when King Taksin restored the dominion under what has been called the Thonburi Kingdom. King Taksin, who was a leader of great charisma, gathered around him other Chinese traders and minor nobles and founded a new capital at Thonburi, surrounded by a swamp that was good for defense and opposite an old Chinese settlement at Bangkok.
King Taksin brought back the traditions of the warrior-king and militarized society, leading armies by example. The ritual shrouding of late Ayutthayan kingship was abandoned in favor of an open, personal, charismatic style.
During the15 years that his reign lasted, King Taksin waged several campaigns, which he led as King and general, against the revels, he drove the Burmese out of Lanna, and extended his power into Laos, Cambodia and part of the Malay peninsula.
At the same time,Thonburi was transformed from a garrison town to a capital, old temples were renovated and new ones were built, along with a red of canals.
King Taksin promoted trade with others countries including China, Britain and the Netherlands, as well as encouraging arts and education.
Craftsmen who had survived the destruction of Ayutthaya settled in Thonburi and formed their own communities. With China supplying money and manpower, Chinese traders thrived. The Portuguese, who supplied Taksin with arms and ammunition, were given a plot of land on the river side. Indian and Malay Muslims traders established themselves along the canal banks.
King Taksin ruled his kingdom from its capital at Thonburi, had led the Thais to a remarkable recovery from the Burmese invasion and reunified the nation, including for the first time, the Northern regions. Although so much was accomplished in such a short time, Siam was still in chaos. After only 15 years, his reign ended after a court rebellion in 1782, followed by king Taksin’s execution.
Bangkok era, Chakri Dynasty ( 1782 – to these days)
After the fifteen years that lasted Thonburi Kingdom, General Chao Phraya Maha Chakri was proclaimed king, initially as Phra Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke, later becoming known as Rama I ,when the method of naming monarchs in this fashion was introduced by Rama VI.
Rama I was the founder of the Chakri Dynasty that rules Thailand to this day.
To read more about Chakri Dynasty, please, visit our page: Thai Monarchy
As we have said, the content of this page is the result of our research, plus some comments of our own. We gathered and put together interesting information that we considered it would be of help and which we had found while reading the books listed below. So, you could find all this information and much more, reading :
- A History of Southeast Asia, by Anthony Reid
- A history of Ayutthaya, Siam in the Early Modern World, by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit
- A History of Thailand, by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit
- This is Thailand, by John Hoskin and Gerald Cubitt
- The sociology of Southeast Asia, by Victor T.King
- Buddhist Art, by Charles F. Cicarelli
We hope that you had enjoyed this page and that we had being of help. If you have some comment, please, lets know. In this way, we could keep linking Pattaya together.