A Bri ef History of Thailand

Laura Hoge

Laura Hoge, Tao Mountain Associate Director of Communit y Outreach and
Editor i n Chief of Ji vaka” Journal — Laura (RYT) is the owner of Peaceful Edge Yoga,
LLC offering private yoga instruction and Thai Yoga Massage to the Central/Northern NJ area
since 2003. Along with dedicating her professional life to South Asian energy work, Laura has
recently completed her second album entitled "Mr. Confidence" and devotes her time to musical
composition, creative writing, spiritual research and philosophical study. Laura can be reached at
laura@taomountain.net.


Origins of Thai People

Scholars argue over the origins of Thai people. Linguistic and dialectical studies suggest that
they migrated from a region stretching from southern China to Northern Vietnam. Other
theorists argue that the migration of Thai people originated from the ocean based civilizations of
the Western Pacific. This theory is supported by the study of symbols and myths that permeate
Thai art and culture.

The Birthplace of Southeast Asian Civil ization

The mysteries of modern day Thailand’s earliest civilizations are most notably seen in the
artifacts found at Ban Chiang. Excavations of this northeastern part of the country have revealed
“painted pottery, jewelry, and bronze and iron tools.”
1
Systematic research suggests that these
artifacts may pre-date the Tigris-Euphrates valley civilization and as a result, have been used
prior to the Bronze age in Europe. Further controversial evidence suggests that rice was being
grown in this area prior to China and bronze and iron tools were being used in the region prior to
those developed in the Middle East around 2800 BCE and in China around 1800 BCE.

“According to archaeological time-tables, the existence of pottery normally suggests a culture
already 2,000 years along the road to civilization.”
2
That being said, archeologists have found

1
Hofer, 1996, p. 28.
2
Hofer, 1996, p. 28
evidence of pottery that dates back to 3600 BCE. They have also uncovered evidence of rice
farming, domesticated animals, and funeral rites. (“Red-painted jars, decorated with fingerprint
whorl patterns, were buried in funeral mounds as offerings. Glass beads and semiprecious stones
were also included.”)
3
These findings lead one to believe that a progressive and rich agricultural
community was firmly established in present day Thailand long before other countries in the
area. As a result, it also opens the debate as to whether or not China actually was the birthplace
of East Asian civilization.

Early City-States and Settlements

It is said that around 3
rd
Century BCE, Indian influence found its way to the region. This is
largely attributed to Emperor Ashoka (268-232BC) and his mission to spread the ideas of
Buddhism to “The Land of Gold”
4
The effect of this can still be seen today as Thailand’s
culture is deeply rooted in Theravada Buddhist tradition.

The types of communities that existed in the area were more or less social city states (aka.
Meuangs) Since they were located on or nearby the Mekong River Valley, and/or one of the
other river valleys in the northern areas of the country, it is safe to presume that these Meuang
were primarily agricultural. Archaeological evidence supports this hypothesis.

It is important to point out that the indigenous communities of the mainland at this time were of a
pre-modern lineage. Though most attempts at defining their ethnic identity have ended with
theoretical results, many argue that the T’ai people arrived in Siam somewhere around the12
th

Century, “having moved from Central Mongolia to East Yunnan before arriving in their present
location.”
5
According to Terweil, this migration of T’ai’s into the region involved more warfare
than most sources allow for. “A careful reading of the available T’ai historical legends indicates
a journey of conquest rather than a peaceful spreading.”
6


Dvaravati Kingdom, 700-1100 CE

3
Hofer, 1996, p. 28
4
Hofer, 1996, p. 28
5
Terweil, 1978, p. 240.
6
Terweil, 1978, p. 248.

Dvaravati (aka. “Place of Gates”)
7
is a Sanskrit word given for the collection of meuang located
along the western half of modern day Thailand and extending north into the southern areas of
Burma and western Laos. It is named after the city of Krishna in the Indian epic Mahabarata.

This period of time is noted for its production of art including “Buddha images (showing Indian
Gupta influence), stucco reliefs on temple walls and in caves, architecture, exquisite terracotta
heads, votive tablets and various sculptures.”
8


Khmer Influence & Angkor Kingdom, 800-1200 CE

The Khmers overtook the Indianized Dvaravati Kingdom and its surrounding areas until their
Angkor Kingdom stretched across the country into the southern areas of Laos, across all of
Cambodia and as far west as southern Burma. With each conquest they brought cultural beliefs,
art and language. The architecture at Lopburi still shows signs of Khmer influence and, as a
result of Cambodia’s rich Indianization prior to these conquests, Sanskrit words were integrated
into the Mon-Thai vocabulary and used at court.

Approximately 700 CE, the Tang Dynasty began spreading Mahayana Buddhist ideas south into
Thailand. Lopburi shows evidence of this tradition as well as Indian Brahmanism, Theravada
Buddhism and Khmer architectural design. As a result, the area became known for its diversity
with regard to spiritual and cultural ideals, often integrating several at once into religious and
court ceremonies.

Nan-Chao: “How Siam Got Its Name, ” 650-1250 CE

Now today’s southern China, Nan-Chao was once inhabited by the Thai. They were gradually
migrating south into Laos and Northern Thailand, but under the leadership of Kublai-Khan,
China forced them to pick up the pace by conquering the land in the early 1200s and expelling
them from the region. As a result, many of the Thais took up arms with the Khmer armies.


7
Cummings, 2003, p. 14
8
Cummings, 2003, p. 14
“The Khmer’s called the Thai’s ‘Syam,’ possibly from the Sanskrit shyama meaning ‘golden’ or
‘swarthy,’ and if so possibly in reference to the Thais’ deeper skin color. Whatever the meaning,
this was how the Thai kingdom eventually came to be called Syam, or Sayam. In Myanmar and
northwestern Thailand, the pronunciation of Syam became ‘Shan.’ The English trader James
Lancaster penned the first known English transliteration of the name as ‘Siam’ in 1592.”
9


Srivijaya Kingdom , 700-1100 CE

While the Khmer’s were dominating most of Thailand and the surrounding areas, the southern
areas of the country and the northern Malay peninsula was flourishing as part of the Srivijaya
Kingdom. Srivijaya was “the first major Malay maritime trading empire.”
10
As a result of this
constant trade, especially with India, Buddhist beliefs were accepted and imperialistic ideas
embraced. The people of Srivijaya reaped the benefits of the fertile Musi River Valley and as a
result became agriculturally independent, productive and wealthy. Although they did their best to
protect themselves with “a highly competent naval force”
11
the wealth of the empire brought
envy from neighboring countries; most notably China who, after the decline of the kingdom,
remained in the area and eventually helped to establish and protect Melaka as a new and rich
trading port on the Malay.

Sukhot hai Kingdom, 1200-1300 CE

Many of the Thai people living in the Mekong River Valley, as well as those in the southern
areas of the country, came together under King Ramkhamhaeng to form Sukhothai. Translated as
“Dawn of Happiness”
12
this kingdom is often referred to as the first independent Thai kingdom.
Under King Ramkhamhaeng (1272-1298), a Thai writing system was established, Theravada
Buddhism was codified and deeply integrated into daily life and a relationship with China
evolved. Though it can be argued that this was most likely at the expense of the Khmers,
Chinese influences cannot be denied, as they are still apparent in the Thai medical, architectural
and artistic traditions today.

9
Cummings, 2003, p. 15
10
Barwise & White, p. 61.
11
Barwise & White, p. 64
12
Hofer, 1996, p. 30

The following story illustrates the belief in how Sukhothai came into being.

“Prior to his time, according to historical legend, the Thai people were forced to pay
tribute to the Khmer rulers of Angkor. This tribute was exacted in the form of sacred
water from a lake outsie Lop Buri; the Khmer god-king needed holy water from all
corners of the empire for his ceremonial rites, a practice later adopted by Thai kings.
Every three years, the water tribute was sent by bullock cart in large earthenware jars.
The jars inevitably cracked en route, compelling the tribute payers to make second and
third journeys to fill the required quota.

When Phra Ruang came of age, he devised a new system of transporting the water in
sealed woven bamboo containers, which arrived in Angkor in tact. The success aroused
suspicion of the Khmer king. His chief astrologer said the ingenious Thai inventor was a
person with supernatural powers, who constituted a threat to the empire. The king at
once dispatched a gifted general – who had the magic ability to travel swiftly
underground – to eliminate the Thai menace. Phra Ruang perceived the danger and went
to Sukhothai, where he concealed himself at Wat Mahathat as a Buddhist Monk. The
Khmer general, who coincidentally surfaced in the middle of the wat, was turned into
stone by Phra Ruang. From then on, Phra Ruang’s fame spread far and wide. He left his
monkhood, married the daughter of the Sukhothai ruler, and upon his death was invited to
the throne by popular mandate. He assumed the title Sri Indraditya, a sovereign of the
newly independent Kingdom of Sukhothai. Fact and fiction are inseparable in this
account.”
13


Lan Na Kingdom, 1300 CE

In order to protect Northern Thailand from Kublai Khan’s advancing power, Ramkhamhaeng
supported two ambitious Thai leaders as they established coalitions of meuang in the north and
formed the Lan Na Kingdom (aka “Million Thai Rice Fields”).
14
Formed in 1296, Lan Na was
effectively established and expanded under the leadership of Phaya Mang Rai. Under his reign,

13
Hofer, 1996, p. 30
14
Cummings, 2003, p. 15
Lan Na defended itself against Mongol aggressors for two decades, accepted Buddhism into its
system of law and order and created a distinct culture that is still evident in northern Thailand;
especially Chiang Mai. In the early 1400s it was still strong enough to resist Ming Chinese
invasions as well as the ambitions of the Ayuthaya Kingdom from the south. It was not until the
19
th
century that Chiang Mai let go of its separateness and came to be ruled by the Chakri
Dynasty.

Ayuthaya, 1300-1700 CE

The Ayuthaya Kingdom spread quickly and it did not take long to seal the demise of the Angkor
Kingdom. Despite its decline, much Khmer influence remained as part of Thai culture.
Brahmans often officiated along with Buddhist monks and Khmer customs permeated court
tradition and language.

Beginning in the early 1500s, Europeans began to set up embassies and by the early 16
th
century
there was a thriving trade system with the West. As a result, Christian influences are seen in
Melaka and all along the Malay. Churches were erected with the intention of converting natives
to Catholicism and interracial marriages took place between Portuguese men and Thai women.
The result can still be seen today in the Eurasion populations of the area.

Despite the positive effects that foreign trade brought to Thailand, its fertile land and access to
trade routes brought much envy from Europe and neighboring countries.

Constantine Phaulkon was a Greek man who became a high official in Siam under King Narai in
the late 1600s. He effectively manipulated the king into trusting him while at the same time,
secretly confiding in Jesuit priests of his plans to convert all of Thailand to Catholicism. France
sent 600 soldiers to the area in order to complete this task and Phaulkon convinced the King to
allow them into the country. In response, the Thai people became suspicious and, fearing a
takeover, expelled the French soldiers, killed Phaulkon, and closed Thailand’s borders for the
ensuing 150 years.

Beginning in the mid-1500s, the Burmese continuously invaded Thailand in an effort to expand
power. Below are some of the more significant battles.
• 1549: The Burmese invade the country. The king and his entire family fight
alongside Thai soldiers and Portuguese allies. Legend has it that Queen Suriyothai
lost her life protecting her husband in battle.
• 1558: Lan Na is conquered.
• 1763-1765: Burmese destroy Ayuthaya after 2 years of combat. The city’s
structures, historical and medical manuscripts, temples and buildings are all
annihilated. As a result, historians and scholars have continued to reconstruct the
culture of that time, but with debatable success.

In 1769, only four years after the Burmese conquered Ayuthaya, Phraya Taksin (1/2 Thai and 1/2
Chinese) led the Thai people in reclaiming the country. Unfortunately, his ego got the best of
him and his behavior became suspicious. He was criticized for elevating himself to the status of
the Buddha and for flogging monks, officials and his family for disobedience to him. He was
ultimately expelled and executed.

On April 6, 1782, the throne was given to General Chakri, one of the leading generals that helped
expel the Burmese from Chiang Mai and the northern provinces of Thailand. Prior to this date,
“the kingdom sustained an unbroken 400-year monarchical succession through 34 reigns.”
15


The Chakri Dynasty, 1782-Present

Rama I (General Chao Phraya Chakri)
1782-1809
Rama I was known for his focus on cultural revival. “He appointed experts to review and
assemble fragments of historical and religious treatises, few of which had survived the
destruction of Ayuthaya in 1767.”
16
He transported Buddha images to the capitol; most
famously the “Emerald Buddha,” and commissioned the first permanent building at capitol, the
Wat Phra Kaew temple. Under his reign, Wat Po was built in an attempt to restore traditional
medical knowledge within its Buddhist context.

Rama II

15
Cummings, 2003, p. 16
16
Hofer, 1996, p.48
1809-1824
He continued the work of his father by focusing his attention to the re-establishment of Thai
culture. An avid poet and woodworker, he is most remembered for repairing and/or rebuilding
monasteries throughout the kingdom and for opening the country’s borders to the west for the
first time since King Narai.

Rama III
1824-1851
Relations with China were established and agricultural trade increased. American missionaries
brought the country its first printing press.

In 1836, the Wat Po temple and grounds were completely renovated. Acupressure charts were
inscribed into stone and traditional herbal recipes can still be seen in the walls of the temple in an
attempt to ensure the preservation of traditional Thai medicine. Statues depicting yoga postures
and massage techniques have survived more than 150 years and are still visited by tourists and
academics alike.

Rama IV (Mongkut)
1851-1868
He was the 1/2 brother to Rama III and had lived as a Buddhist monk for 27 years. He
established strong trade relationships with Europe and other countries. He reformed the
education system of Thailand, allowing it to take on a more European feel.

Mongut was falsely portrayed in “The King and I” as being thoughtless and dictatorial. His
reign is more accurately referred to as being one of cultural and economic evolution. He was
accepting of foreign influence, but only after thorough investigation, often reminding his subjects
of the importance of maintaining cultural identity.

Rama V (Chulalongkorn)
1868-1910
He took the throne at age 16 and picked up where his father left off. He received a European
education and as a result, set out to reform the legal and administrative systems in the country.
He abolished slavery and discontinued prostration before the king. His relationships with Europe
and the United States allowed for the construction of railways and the establishment of civil
service.

“Although Siam still managed to avoid European colonization, the king was compelled to
concede territory to French Indochina (Laos in 1893 and Cambodia in 1907) and British Burma
(three Malayan states in 1909) during his reign.”
17


Rama VI (Vajiravudh)
1910-1925

Chulalongkorn’s son, he was educated in Britain. He continued with his father’s reformations in
Thailand by westernizing the Thai calendar and introducing compulsory education.
Chulalongkorn University was founded under his reign and became the first university in
Thailand.

He was known for his nationalistic tendencies and anti-Chinese sentiments. He did away with
the Chinese style name, requiring all Thai citizens to use a more western style surname. This
type of xenophobic attitude made non-Thais living in the region apprehensive to say the least.
“Vajiravudh described the Chinese as the ‘Jews of the East’ and slogans like ‘Siam for the
Siamese’ struck fear into the non-Thai population.”
18


During WWI, he sent 1300 troops to France in an attempt to show loyalties with Europe. As a
result, Thailand was admitted into the League of Nations.

Rama VI’s lifestyle left the treasury in deficit.

Rama VII (Prajadhipok)
1925-1932


17
Cummings, 2003, p. 18
18
Barwise & White, p.157
Rama VI’s brother. He took the throne when the country was still suffering from the financial
deficits of Vajiravudh. In order to bring Thailand out of monetary collapse, Prajadhipok was
forced to cut public expenses, civil services and royal expenditure.

Under his reign the airport became international and the Fine Arts Department, National Library
and National Museum were created. All of these things would eventually inspire tourism and
foreign interest in the region.

Despite Prajadhipok’s focus on economic revival, the Stock Market crash of 1929 brought
financial distress to the country.

In 1932, Thai students living in Paris staged a victorious coup and effectively brought their
constitutional ideals to the monarchy. Modeled after British design, it gave power to a “mixed
military civilian group.”
19


Prajadhipok continued to reign, but accepted the provisional government. In 1934, a year after a
royalist revolt failed to re-establish monarchical rule, Prajadhipok’s 10 year old half nephew
became king.

Rama VIII (Ananda Mahidol) & Military Rule
1934-1945

Until Mahidol was old enough to take the throne, he was sent to Switzerland for schooling.
Phibul Songkhram, one of the leaders of the 1932 coup, became Prime Minister in the interim.
He quickly established a military dictatorship, affixing Thailand’s loyalty to the Japanese.

In 1942, during WWII, he declared war on USA and Britain. Fortunately, this declaration never
reached the west. It is believed that Seni Pramoj, the Thai ambassador to Washington, secretly
refused to deliver the message of war. Instead, in 1945, with the help of both western and
communist resistance, Phibul Songkhram was successfully removed from power.


19
Cummings, 2003, p. 19
At this time, Mahidol was coming of age to take control of the country. Unfortunately, in 1946
he was mysteriously shot dead before he could do so. Some of Rama VIII’s attendants were
executed for his murder, though the events surrounding his death are still debatable at best.

The same year that the king was assassinated, a democratic civilian group took power from those
in place from the 1932 coup. Pridi Phanomyong, a law professor, successfully led the power
struggle. Under his leadership, the 1946 Constitution of the Thai Kingdom was established.

In 1947, Phibul Songkhram overthrew the new leadership, suspended the constitution and exiled
Pridi Phanomyong to China. Songkhram’s new enemy became China. He forbid immigration
from the country and barred them from occupations. Instead, he supported French neighbors and
US policies in the region.

Rama IX (Bhumibol)
1946-Present

Younger brother of the murdered Rama VIII, Bhumibol is the longest reigning monarch in Thai
history. He was born in the USA and schooled in Switzerland and Bangkok. He is an avid
linguistic and is fluent in Thai, English, French, German, etc. He is also an established jazz
musician, having played with many famed musician including Benny Goodman. His
compositions are often heard playing on Thai radio.

During his reign there have been many coups and uprisings among Thai citizens from abroad and
within Thailand’s borders.

In 1951, Phibul Songkhram was overthrown and exiled but the military dictatorship was
maintained under General Sarit Thanarat until 1957 when elections forced his resignation.
Dissatisfied with his expulsion from power, Thanarat staged a coup a year later and maintained
his dictatorship until 1963. “During this time he abolished the constitution, dissolved the
parliament and banned all political parties, maintaining effective power until he died of cirrhosis
in 1963.”
20


20
Cummings, 2003, p. 19

Between 1964-1973, Thailand was ruled by Prime Minister Thanam and other military officers.
All of these military rulers became rich and corrupt while the standard of health in the country
declined.

According to Insight Guide’s Thailand, Prime Minister Thanam toyed with the idea of creating a
constitution and holding elections. Unfortunately, he changed his mind a few years later and
went back to military style rule. As a result, the Thais felt betrayed and many students began to
protest for a constitution.

Perhaps the most notable demonstration took place on October 14, 1973

At Thammasat University, 400,000 people demonstrated and were violently suppressed by
military forces. Some sources estimate approximately 100 students being shot and killed during
the riot. The army deserted their leadership in protest of the use of this type of force and as a
result, the generals fled to the United States. King Bhumibol was also outraged at the military
force and demanded that the officers be taken from power and exiled.

Between1973-1976, Seni Pramoj was an integral leader in various coalition governments.
Known for his anti-military agenda, he is most remembered for developing “a national minimum
wage, the repeal of anticommunist laws and the ejection of US Military forces in Thailand.”
21

Unfortunately, he is also criticized as having established a government that was inefficient; its
weaknesses unable to effectively deal with the domestic difficulties of the country.

As communism threatened the area, taking hold of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, etc., King
Bhumibol, once again, leaned in the direction of military rule. Seni Pramoj’s government was
ousted. As a result, the students began demonstrating and once again it was greeted with
violence, many of the students being lynched and burned.

In 1976, Thanin Kraivichien, an elected civilian judge at the time, was appointed Prime Minister
in an attempt to appease both military and civilian arguments. Much to everybody’s dismay, he

21
Cummings, 2003, p.20

ended up being more aggressive than the militaristic alternative. He outlawed political parties
and arrested protesters. As a result, many students joined the PLAT (People’s Liberation Army
of Thailand – a small group of communist insurgents residing in the hills) in protest. He was
ousted a year later by military generals under Prem Tinsulanonda, who, in an effort to bring the
students back from the countryside, granted amnesty to communists.

Between 1980-1988, General Prem Tinsulanonda remained in power despite numerous attempts
at coup. He effectively stabilized Thailand in the post Vietnam years but refused a second term
as an unelected PM.

In 1991, the military staged a coup in the name of the people with the intention of ousting what
was considered to be a corrupt democracy. A constitution was passed and parliament was
established with 270 senators and 360 elected representatives. The government, however,
continued to be dominated by military powers.

In 1997 the People’s Constitution was written. It was the first to be decreed by a civilian
government and protected civil rights, made voting compulsory, allowed public access to
information from state agencies, and created watchdog organizations to patrol the courts and
government.

January 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra, a Thai billionaire, was named Prime Minister. His party
promised land reform for farmers but has yet to carry this out.

To date, Thai democracy remains tenuous at best.


Sources

Barwise, J.M. & White, N.J. A Traveller’s History of Southeast Asia. New York: Interlink
Publishing Group, 2002.

Cummings, Joe, et al. Thailand; 10
th
Edition. Melborne: Lonely Planet Publications, 2003.

Hofer, Hans, et al. Insight Guides: Thailand. Singapore: Hofer Press (Pte) Ltd, 1996.

Salguero, C. Pierce. The Encyclopedia of Thai Massage: A Complete Guide to Thai Massage
Therapy and Acupressure. Forres, Scotland: Findhorn Press, 2004.

Salguero, C. Pierce. A Thai Herbal: Recipes for Health and Harmony. Forres, Scotland:
Findhorn Press, 2001.

Terweil, B.J. ‘The Origin of T’ai Peoples Reconsidered.” In Oriens Extremus, 25(1978):2:239-
257.