Pre 20th Century
The history of Thailand as a nation dates back almost 800 years, from the foundation of the Sukhothai kingdom in the 13th century (1238 AD). It was then that the Thais were first united as a nation and which marked the Thai as a distinct people.
But in fact, the history of the land currently defined by the borders of Thailand, stretches back much further to the pre-historic era. Many discoveries unearthed and excavated in several parts of Thailand give strong evidence that a highly civilized people once inhabited the region.
Several Stone Age settlements have been excavated, notable among them are Ban Kao in Kanchanaburi province and Non Nok in Khon Kaen province. The most important archeological site of early Thai civilization is at Ban Chiang village, in Udon Thani province in the northeastern part of Thailand. Excavations have uncovered painted pottery, jewelry and bronze and iron tools dating from about 3600 BC. The settlement seems to have lasted until around 250 BC, after which the people mysteriously faded from history. The people at Ban Chiang comprised only one of the cradles of Asian civilization and an area that was inhabited for thousands of years before the emergence of the first Thai state.
After the disappearance of the Ban Chiang civilization, the area was influenced by various cultures from India in the 3rd century, the Mons between the 6th and 10th centuries, and the Khmers who built the wondrous Angkor Wat and left their legacy in the form of numerous stone sanctuaries scattered across the Thai kingdom. But it was not until the Sukhothai kingdom was established that the Thai people were unified.
Sukhothai, (13th - 15th centuries), literally the 'dawn of happiness', is considered by most Thai historians to be the first true Thai kingdom, the golden era of Thai history governed by just paternal kings who ruled over peaceful contented citizens. During this period, the greatest monarch, King Ramkamhaeng, devised the first Thai written alphabet, which became the basis for the modern Thai language and literature.
The kingdom also marked a period of great Thai cultural development. During that time, the Thai kingdom absorbed elements of various civilizations, which came into its influence. The Indian civilization in particular, had the greatest impact in providing the basic mould for the region's culture, its artistic development and its social and religious patterns. Visitors can still admire evidence of this great civilization at the Sukhothai Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and also at Sri Satchanalai historical park in Khamphaeng Phet province.
Established over several centuries, the Sukhothai kingdom eventually collapsed, giving way to the rising star of Ayutthaya. The decline of Sukhothai lasted from the mid-14th century until the 15th century. In 1378, the Ayutthaya king, Boromracha I subdued Sukhothai's frontier city of Chakangrao (present-day Kamphaeng Phet), making Sukhothai a satellite state of Ayutthaya. Sukhothai later attempted to break loose from Ayutthaya but with no real success, until in the 15th century, it was finally incorporated into the Ayutthaya kingdom as a province. Back to top
The focus of Thai history and politics now moved to the central plains of present-day Thailand, where Ayutthaya established itself as a centralized state.
The glorious Ayutthaya era lasted for 417 years (1350 to 1767 AD). Founded by King U-Tong or Ramathibodi I, the empire of Ayutthaya quickly established its sovereignty over neighboring states such as Suphannaphum and Lawo, and came to take over the role of religious, cultural and commercial capital of the Thais. Part of Ayutthaya's glory was due to its geographic and strategic location. The city of Ayutthaya was nestled at the confluence of the Pa Sak, Lopburi and Chao Phraya rivers, so it became the ideal center for administration and communication.
Unlike Sukhothai, where the king had fostered a paternal relationship with his people, the Ayutthaya kings became autocrats. King Ramathibodi I consolidated his kingdom through the adoption of an expansionist policy and the appointment of four powerful officers in charge of the royal household, local government, finance and agriculture.
During the 14th and 15th centuries the Thai kings of Ayutthaya became very powerful and began to expand their kingdom eastward until they took Angkor from the Khmers in 1431. By the mid-16th century Ayutthaya and the independent kingdom of Chiang Mai had come under the control of the Burmese, but the Thais had regained control of both areas by the end of the century.
However, Ayutthaya's relations with its neighbors were not always cordial. Wars were fought against Cambodia, Lanna, Lanchang, Pattani and Burma, Ayutthaya's powerful neighbor to the west. Burmese power waxed and waned in cycles according to successive ruler's administrative efficiency in the control of manpower.
Ayutthaya became embroiled in an ongoing conflict with Burma that led to three successive wars in 1538, 1548 and finally in 1569, with the result of Ayutthaya's first defeat at the hands of the Burmese. Fifteen years after the first defeat, Prince Naresuan proclaimed independence from the Burmese once again. Prince Naresuan later became one of the greatest kings of the Ayutthaya era.
The Ayutthaya period also marked the emergence of Thailand's era of international trade. During the 17th century, Ayutthaya came to the height of its power with the greatest economic, social, architectural and cultural achievement. It became one of the biggest and most significant trading ports of the Orient. Traders from Europe, China, Japan, India and the East Indies flocked to Ayutthaya for its bountiful trade prospects. Some western visitors likened Ayutthaya to Italy's Venice, calling it the most beautiful city in the East.
Ayutthaya enjoyed over a century of comparative peace. Then, in the mid-18th century, the kings of the Ala unghpaya dynasty of Burma again adopted an expansionist policy. During the 1760's, the Burmese armies inflicted severe defeats on the Thais. Finally, in 1767, Ayutthaya succumbed to an all-out attack by the Burmese. They invaded and captured Ayutthaya, looted priceless artifacts, killed or enslaved all but 10,000 inhabitants and razed the city, bringing the glorious age of Ayutthaya to an end. During the 417 years of the empire, Ayutthaya had a total of five dynasties with 33 kings. Back to top
After Ayutthaya's destruction came a period of darkness and despair. The situation seemed hopeless. But out of this national catastrophe emerged another savior of the Thai state: an army general named Phaya Taksin. Within a few years, Phaya Taksin had managed to defeat all the rivals and also the Burmese invaders, and established a new Thai capital at Thonburi in 1769. He proclaimed himself king, thus starting the short-lived Thonburi period.
The Thais quickly regained control of their country and began to further unite the provinces in the north and south of the country. Campaigns for the restoration and preservation of national independence were adopted. The era lasted for just 15 difficult years. No central authority was founded and the kingdom quickly disintegrated as a result.
In 1782, the Chakri dynasty was founded and the nation also received a new capital. King Rama I crowned himself as the first king and ordered the relocation of the capital across the river from Thonburi to Bangkok. The establishment of the Chakri dynasty marked the beginning of the so-called Rattanakosin period.
It was for strategic reasons that King Rama I decided to move the capital to the east bank of the Chao Phraya River. He believed that the site could be more easily defended than Thonburi should the Burmese ever try to attack again. However, defense was not his only purpose. He also wanted to wipe out the memory of defeat and restore national pride with the construction of a city that would recreate the lost glory of Ayutthaya.
In building Bangkok as the capital city, attempts were made to revive the glory of Ayutthaya as faithfully as possible. The Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) were replicated from Ayutthaya's grand palace and royal temple. Modern Thailand is deeply indebted to King Rama I for his cultural revival programs.
King Rama I died in 1809. His son, King Rama II, took the throne and ruled until 1824. King Rama III (1824-1851) began to develop trade with China and boosted domestic agricultural production. During the two succeeding reigns, Bangkok was further expanded and embellished. It became one of the most magnificent cities in the Orient, achieving the height of glory formerly enjoyed by Ayutthaya. The early Rattanakosin period also marked the beginning of relations between the Thai kingdom and the West during the Age of Imperialism.
When King Mongkut (Rama IV) took the throne in 1851 he quickly established diplomatic relations with European nations, while at the same time astutely avoiding colonization. He also began a period of trade reform and modernization of the Thai education system.
His son, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), continued this tradition. He ordered extensive reform of the legal and administrative systems and also revolutionized the communication and transportation systems. King Chulalongkorn's efforts and contributions helped the country avoid colonization and made Thailand the only country in the region to maintain independence from the West. But of all his achievements, abolition of slavery was the greatest. This accomplishment earned him the name 'Piya Maharaj', the 'Beloved Great King'. He became one of the most beloved and revered kings of modern Thai history.
Like his father, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI), the successor of King Chulalongkorn, continued to modernize Siam. During his 15-year reign from 1910 to 1925, the king introduced compulsory education and other reforms. He also established the country's first western-style universities: Chulalongkorn University, perhaps most famous of all, was named in honor of his father.
In 1925 the brother of King Vajiravudh, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII 1925-1935) ascended the throne. Seven years later a group of Thai students living in Paris mounted a successful bloodless coup d'etat, which led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy similar to the system in Britain.
A key military leader in the coup, Phibul Songkhram, took power and maintained control until after the end of WW II. Rama VIII, Ananda Mahidol, became king in 1935 but was assassinated under rather mysterious circumstances in 1946.
His younger brother Bhumibol Adulyadej succeeded him and from then on became the ninth king of the Chakri dynasty. He remains on the throne to this day, respected and revered in both Thailand and throughout the rest of the world.
Grand celebrations to commemorate His Majesty the King's 72nd birthday anniversary were held throughout 1999. He has become the longest-reigning king in Thai history with more than 50 years on the throne. The year-long celebrations highlighted the deep respect and pride of the Thai people for their monarch.
Throughout all these years, Thailand has portrayed itself as a country with amazing history. While the other nine members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations all fell under the yoke of European imperialism, Thailand steadfastly defended its independence, something that the Thai people are very proud of. As an independent nation, the Thai people have continually developed a unique and distinctive society and culture. Undoubtedly, the most outstanding characteristics of 'Thainess' are the dual forces of Buddhism and the monarchy, the main cohesive elements of Thai society since ancient times until today. Back to top
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