History of Thailand

Ancient Thailand | Flag, Map, Population, & Facts

Thailand’s Early human migrations

Thailand: Early archaic hominids first arrived in the area we today call Thailand at least 500,000 years ago. The first modern humans came out of Africa and had a long way to travel before reaching Thailand. Therefore, the first Homo sapiens did not settle in the area until relatively late. The earliest remains date from about 18,000 years ago.

The hunter-gatherers in the area added rice to their diets, growing it to supplement their diets. Sedentary rice growing human settlements emerged in 1500 BCE and often involved the mining of copper and bronze. Indeed, mining was an essential component of the local economy even in the hunter-gatherer days, dating back to 3000 BCE. 

History of Thailand

History of Thailand

The first known kingdom in the region was Funan. It was not based primarily in Thailand but instead spread into the area from the Mekong Delta.  We do not know precisely when the kingdom was established, but the records addressing them are Chinese examples from the 1st century AD. Still, the archaeological evidence points to extensive settlement in the area dating back to the 4th Century BCE.

This early kingdom – and many that came after it – was highly influenced by Indian culture.  Therefore, both Hinduism and Buddhism took hold. The kingdoms of Mon and Khmer incorporated parts of Thailand in them, while their power base was in the Mekong Delta, in Indochina. Therefore, the first indigenous Thai culture we are aware of emanated from the Mon Dvaravati people. Utterly dominant in central Thailand from 600 to 900 AD, they wrote in a Sanskrit dialect very similar to that commonly spoken in southern India. However, cultural influence came from the south and the north.

The form of Theravada Buddhism the Mon Dvaravati adopted was almost certainly a product of Sri Lanka. However, in the 10th century, the area lost its independence to militarily stronger cultures from Indochina. During this period, the Tai people began migrating southwards from their ancestral homes in southern China, eventually becoming the namesakes of the territory. At first, they were powerless migrants in kingdoms ruled by others. In particular, the  Tai settled in areas controlled by the Khmer. 

One of the great kings of the Khmer, Suryavarman  I, brought most of the country under his authority. The written sources point to his heavy reliance on Tai troops for that achievement. However, as the existing powers faded in influence, the Tai formed their own kingdom for the first time. First, a group of city-states emerged from the power vacuum. However, soon one rose over the rest.

Thailand – Sukhothai Period (1238-1438)

Thailand - Sukhothai Period (1238-1438)

The Sukhothai kingdom was formed in 1238 by Sri Indraditya. Modern Thais consider this time to be a golden era because it saw an early peak in the people’s political power and culture in the area.  The Tai citizens in this kingdom changed their affiliation from Tai spelled T.A.I to Thai spelled  T.H.A.I.

The new name translated to the word “free,” signifying their independence from foreign rule. But the autonomy was only partial, as the kings of Sukhothai recognized the overlordship of the Yuan dynasty Emperor and paid him tribute. According to Thai tradition, the system of government in the kingdom was highly straightforward. A bell was placed in front of the king’s palace, and citizens could ring the bell to bring their problems to the sovereign’s attention.

This system of government was called “father governs children.” It remains a  model for Thai governance to the present day. Under King Ram Khamhaeng, the city-state of Sukhothai became a dominant power. According to legend, the monarch also established the Thai alphabet. However, that was almost certainly a gradual process.  Despite the dominance of Sukhothai, it is worth noting that other Tai city-states maintained their independence and cultural autonomy at this time. In particular, the La Na kingdom maintained independence even after the Sukhothai lost theirs. 

The Tai dominance continued. However,  it did so through a new kingdom. The city of Ayutthaya – an island surrounded by rivers – was founded in 1350. Its power grew exponentially, and the city functioned as the center of an empire. Its territory stretched from the Malay  Islands to the borders of central Burma. This era was also a pivotal time for the development of the national culture.  

In the 14th century, Ramathibodi made Theravada  Buddhism the official religion – a title it still retains today. His administration also put together a legal code influenced by Hindu theology, practice, and local customs.  The Dharmaśāstra, as it would be called, remained the law of the land for 500 years or so.  It was replaced in the 19th century.

The Ayutthaya period also saw a flowering of Thai medicine and art. According to some estimates, in 1700, the city had a population of over a million. If this is true, it was the largest city in the world. 

The city of Lavo emerged as an alternative center. While Ayutthaya was associated with Buddhism, Lavo was a notable Hindu cultural center from the 14th century. Meanwhile, in the south of modern Thailand,  the Malay cultures spread into the area, carving out their sphere of influence.  However, they do not seem to have been remarkably cohesive politically. According to Chinese sources, the Malay-dominated areas were weak culturally and politically. During this period of Thai supremacy, European colonial influence first spread into Thailand. 

The capture of Malacca (1511)

The capture of Malacca (1511)

The Europeans called the area Siam, a name that stuck in the west for centuries. In 1511, the  Portuguese arrived in the city and established diplomatic relations with the kingdom. While many other areas of the world suffered from the trade routes created by the colonial powers, Ayutthaya seems to have benefitted from it tremendously. Four hundred years of Ayutthaya were rudely interrupted by Burmese occupation. In 1547, the Burmese-Siamese War broke out. However, the  Ayutthaya fought off the invasions for decades they eventually succumbed.

In the 18th century,  the Bamar people of Burma took over the city. Having conquered La Na earlier, they were now masters of the entire region. While the Burmese had once paid tribute to the Thai, they had gradually gained a great deal of power, and the city-states of the area succumbed to them one after the other. 

A successful rebellion was led by Taskin, a local noble with Chinese roots. He unified most of Siam under his rule. In the process, Taskin also forged close economic and social ties with his homeland. Thus, a significant amount of  Chinese immigrants crossed over and would remain a fixture in Thailand.  Unfortunately, Taskin lost his sanity. His erratic behavior cost him his crown and his head. The monarch was executed in 1782. 

The Chakri dynasty took over Siam and established Rattanakosin, known today as Bangkok, as the capital city. The dynasty fought off the  Burmese and increased their holdings in the north. The Siamese state maintained a traditional structure until the reign of King Mongkut. Facing new threats from regional rivals and technologically superior colonial interlopers, he began a process of accelerated modernization. The Siamese had some success in pursuing independence from the colonial powers by setting them against each other.  

In 1904, the French and English divided the country into spheres of influence. When the French sent in troops, Siam became a colony in all but name. Nonetheless, Siam remained nominally independent and entered the League of Nations as a legally equal member.

In 1932, a group of reformers overthrew the Siamese monarchy and founded a constitutional democracy in Bangkok. The nationalist government that emerged a few years later changed the name of the country to Thailand.  The same government also allied with Japan and fought the allies in World War 2 before a pro-allied government took over in 1944. However, the civilian government did not last long, and a nationalist military government reemerged in 1947. The new government was pro-American and firmly anti-communist. 

In 1973, an uprising against the nationalist government began a transition to democracy. However, the country has remained unstable.  The military continues to have an oversize influence in politics. Meanwhile, the democratic process is contentious and sometimes violent. Modern Thailand is a country of paradoxes. It is corrupt and dysfunctional, yet it remains a center for Buddhist pacifist spirituality.  It is a fiercely traditional country, which has adopted many of the worst excesses of  Western culture. It welcomes Western tourism and yet is somehow insulated and timeless. Thailand remains a stunningly beautiful and vibrant country with some of the best food in the world.


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