ANCIENT HISTORY OF THAILAND, ORIGIN OF THE THAIS AND THE THAI NAME AND WORLD'S FIRST BRONZE AGE CULTURE

THAILAND: INTRODUCTION AND NAME

The formal name of Thailand is Kingdom of Thailand (Ratcha Anachak Thai). The term for citizen(s) is Thai (singular and plural). By some translations Thailand means "Land of the Free" (Prathet Thai ) and this is an apt name for this country where anything goes. By other translations it simply means “Land of the Thais.” The Thais call their country “Muang Thai,” which also means “Land of the Free.” They call themselves the “Khon Tha,” which means “free people.” “Siam” and “Siamese” are terms mainly used by foreigners. From 1855 to 1939 and from 1946 to 1949 Thailand was known as Siam—Prathet Sayam, a historical name referring to people in the Chao Phraya Valley—the name used by Europeans since 1592).

Thai nationalism is summed up by the expression “king, country and religion.” The land known today as Thailand has a long history of human habitation dating back to the Neolithic Period. Excavations of settlements from the Bronze Age at Ban Chiang uncovered ancient earthenware believed to date from around 3600 B.C. The Mon, Khmer, and Tai tribes later migrated from southern China. Presently, the Mon are settled in Myanmar and the Khmer in Cambodia, while the Tai set up their Thai city states, starting in northern Thailand, with three main cities: Lanna, Sukhothai, and Phayao.

A unified Thai kingdom was established in the mid-14th century. Known as Siam until 1939, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country never to have been taken over by a European power. A bloodless revolution in 1932 led to a constitutional monarchy. In alliance with Japan during World War II, Thailand became a US treaty ally in 1954 after sending troops to Korea and later fighting alongside the United States in Vietnam. Thailand since 2005 has experienced several rounds of political turmoil including a military coup in 2006 that ousted then Prime Minister Thaksin Chinnawat, followed by large-scale street protests by competing political factions in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Demonstrations in 2010 culminated with clashes between security forces and pro-Thaksin protesters, elements of which were armed, and resulted in at least 92 deaths and an estimated $1.5 billion in arson-related property losses. Thaksin's youngest sister,Yinglak Chinnawat, in 2011 led the Puea Thai Party to an electoral win and assumed control of the government. Yinglak's leadership was almost immediately challenged by historic flooding in late 2011 that had large swathes of the country underwater and threatened to inundate Bangkok itself. Throughout 2012 the Puea Thai-led government struggled with the opposition Democrat Party to fulfill some its main election promises, including constitutional reform and political reconciliation. Since January 2004, thousands have been killed and wounded in violence associated with the ethno-nationalist insurgency in Thailand's southern Malay-Muslim majority. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

The spelling of Thai names, places and words sometimes varies. This is because the Thai language has its own script that is quite different from western Roman writing and the way Thai sounds are interpreted can be a judgment call or a matter of opinion.

Historical Themes of Thailand

Thailand lies at the converging point of the empires of China, India, Burma, the Khmers and Vietnam. The traditional founding date for Thailand is 1238. Thais and Burmese have traditionally been enemies. Unlike other nations in Southeast Asia, Thailand was never colonized.

Little is known of the earliest inhabitants of what is now Thailand, but 5,000-year-old archaeological sites in the northeastern part of the country are believed to contain the oldest evidence of rice cultivation and bronze casting in Asia and perhaps in the world. In early historical times, a succession of tribal groups controlled what is now Thailand. The Mon and Khmer peoples established powerful kingdoms that included large areas of the country. They absorbed from contact with South Asian peoples religious, social, political, and cultural ideas and institutions that later influenced the development of Thailand's culture and national identity. [Source: Library of Congress]

The Tai, a people who originally lived in southwestern China, migrated into mainland Southeast Asia over a period of many centuries. The first mention of their existence in the region is a twelfth-century A.D. inscription at the Khmer temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which refers to syam, or "dark brown" people (the origin of the term Siam) as vassals of the Khmer monarch. In 1238 a Tai chieftain declared his independence from the Khmer and established a kingdom at Sukhothai in the broad valley of the Mae Nam (river)Chao Phraya, at the center of modern Thailand. Sukhothai was succeeded in the fourteenth century by the kingdom of Ayutthaya. The Burmese invaded Ayutthaya and in 1767 destroyed the capital, but two national heroes, Taksin and Chakkri, soon expelled the invaders and reunified the country under the Chakkri Dynasty.

Over the centuries Thai national identity evolved around a common language and religion and the institution of the monarchy. Although the inhabitants of Thailand are a mixture of Tai, Mon, Khmer, and other ethnic groups, most speak a language of the Tai family. A Tai language alphabet, based on Indian and Khmer scripts, developed early in the fourteenth century. Later in the century a famous monarch, Ramathibodi, made Theravada Buddhism the official religion of his kingdom, and Buddhism continued into the twentieth century as a dominant factor in the nation's social, cultural, and political life. Finally, the monarchy, buttressed ideologically by Hindu and Buddhist mythology, was a focus for popular loyalties for more than seven centuries. In the late twentieth century the monarchy remained central to national unity.

During the nineteenth century, European expansionism, rather than Thailand's traditional enemies, posed the greatest threat to the kingdom's survival. Thai success in preserving the country's independence (it was the only Southeast Asian country to do so) was in part a result of the desire of Britain and France for a stable buffer state separating their dominions in Burma, Malaya, and Indochina. More important, however, was the willingness of Thailand's monarchs, Mongkut (Rama IV, 1851-68) and Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910), to negotiate openly with the European powers and to adopt European-style reforms that modernized the country and won it sovereign status among the world's nations. Thailand (then known as Siam) paid a high price for its independence, however: loss of suzerainty over Cambodia and Laos to France and cession of the northern states of the Malay Peninsula to Britain. By 1910 the area under Thai control was a fraction of what it had been a century earlier.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Thailand's political system, armed forces, schools, and economy underwent drastic changes. Many Thai studied overseas, and a small, Western-educated elite with less traditional ideas emerged. In 1932 a bloodless coup d'etat by military officers and civil servants ended the absolute monarchy and inaugurated Thailand's constitutional era. Progress toward a stable, democratic political system since that time, however, has been erratic. Politics has been dominated by rival military-bureaucratic cliques headed by powerful generals. These cliques have initiated repeated coups d'etat and have imposed prolonged periods of martial law. Parliamentary institutions, as defined by Thailand's fourteen constitutions between 1932 and 1987, and competition among civilian politicians have generally been facades for military governments.

Geography, Culture and History in Thailand

Thailand's 514,000 square kilometers lie in the middle of mainland Southeast Asia. The nation's axial position influenced many aspects of Thailand's society and culture. The earliest speakers of the Tai language migrated from what is now China, following rivers into northern Thailand and southward to the Mae Nam (river) Chao Phraya Valley. The fertile floodplain and tropical monsoon climate, ideally suited to wet-rice (thamna) cultivation, attracted settlers to this central area rather than to the marginal uplands and mountains of the northern region or the Khorat Plateau to the northeast. By the twelfth century, a number of loosely connected rice-growing and trading states flourished in the upper Chao Phraya Valley. [Source: Library of Congress*]

Starting in the middle of the fourteenth century, these central chiefdoms gradually came under the control of the kingdom of Ayutthaya at the southern extremity of the floodplain. Successive capitals, built at various points along the river, became centers of great Thai kingdoms based on rice cultivation and foreign commerce. Unlike the neighboring Khmer and Burmese, the Thai continued to look outward across the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea toward foreign ports of trade. When European imperialism brought a new phase in Southeast Asian commerce in the late 1800s, Thailand (known then as Siam) was able to maintain its independence as a buffer zone between British-controlled Burma to the west and French-dominated Indochina to the east. *

Ancient History of Thailand

Over the course of millennia, migrations from southern China peopled Southeast Asia, including the area of contemporary Thailand. The earliest known inhabitation of present-day Thailand dates to the Paleolithic period, about 20,000 years ago. Archaeology has revealed evidence in the Khorat Plateau in the northeast of prehistoric inhabitants who forged bronze implements as early as 3000 B.C. and cultivated rice during the fourth millennium B.C.

Thailand is home to one of the world's oldest rice-based civilizations. Rice is believed to have first been being cultivated in there around 3,500 B.C. Evidence of ancient rice agriculture includes rice marking found on pottery fragments unearthed in graves unearthed at Non Noktha village in Khon Kaen province in northeast Thailand that have been dated to be 5,400 years old and rice husks found in pottery in the north, at Pung Hung Cave, Mae Hong Son dated to be around 5,000 years old. People that lived in a site called Khok Phanom Di in Thailand between 4,000 and 3,500 year ago practiced rice farming and buried their dead facing east in shrouds of bark and asbestos fibers. The oldest rice grains ever discovered in China; they date back to about 5000 B.C.

The pace of economic and social development was uneven and conditioned by climate and geography. The dense forests of the Chao Phraya Valley in the central part of Thailand and the Malay Peninsula in the south produced such an abundance of food that for a long time there was no need to move beyond a hunting-and- gathering economy. In contrast, rice cultivation appeared early in the highlands of the far north and hastened the development of a more communal social and political organization.

See Southeast Asia

Bronze Age and Thailand

Some natural copper contains tin. During the forth millennium in present-day Turkey, Iran and Thailand man learned that these metals could be melted and fashioned into a metal—bronze—that was stronger than copper, which had limited use in warfare because copper armor was easily penetrated and copper blades dulled quickly. Bronze shared these limitations to a lesser degree, a problem that was rectified until the utilization of iron which is stronger and keeps a sharp edge better than bronze, but has a much higher melting point. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

The Bronze Age lasted from about 4,000 B.C. to 1,200 B.C. During this period everything from weapons to agricultural tools to hairpins was made with bronze (a copper-tin alloy). Weapons and tools made from bronze replaced crude implements of stone, wood, bone, and copper. Bronze knives are considerable sharper than copper ones. The terms the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age were coined by the Danish historian Christian Jurgen Thomsen in his Guide to Scandinavian Antiquities (1836) as a way of categorizing prehistoric objects. The Copper Age was added latter.

Bronze is much stronger than copper. It is credited with making war as we know it today possible. Bronze sword, bronze shield and bronze armored chariots gave those who had it a military advantage over those who didn't have it. Scientists believe, the heat required to melt copper and tin into bronze was created by fires in enclosed ovens outfitted with tubes that men blew into to stoke the fire. Before the metals were placed in the fire, they were crushed with stone pestles and then mixed with arsenic to lower the melting temperature. Bronze weapons were fashioned by pouring the molten mixture (approximately three parts copper and one part tin) into stone molds.

According to the Library of Congress: Excavations at Ban Chiang, a small village on the Khorat Plateau in northeastern Thailand, have revealed evidence of prehistoric inhabitants who may have forged bronze implements as early as 3000 B.C. and cultivated rice around the fourth millennium B.C. If so, the Khorat Plateau would be the oldest rice-producing area in Asia because the inhabitants of China at that time still largely consumed millet. Archaeologists have assembled evidence that the bronze implements found at the Thai sites were forged in the area and not transported from elsewhere. They supported this claim by pointing out that both copper and tin deposits (components of bronze) are found in close proximity to the Ban Chiang sites. If these claims are correct, Thai bronze forgers would have predated the "Bronze Age," which archaeologists had traditionally believed began in the Middle East around 2800 B.C. and in China about a thousand years later. [Source: Library of Congress]

World's First Bronze Age Culture in Thailand?

Bronze artifacts discovered in northeastern Thailand, around the village of Ban Chiang, were originally dated to 3600 to 4000 B.C., more than a thousand years before the Bronze Age was thought to have begun in the Middle East. The discovery of these tools resulted in a major revision of theories regarding the development of civilization in Asia.

The first discoveries of early Bronze Age culture in Southeast Asia were made by Dr. G. Solheim II, a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii. In the early 1970s, he found a socketed bronze ax, dated to 2,800 B.C., at a site in northern Thailand called Non Nok Tha. The ax was about 500 years older than the oldest non-Southeast-Asia bronze implements discovered in present-day Turkey and Iran, where it is believed the Bronze Age began. [Source: Wilhelm G. Solheim II, Ph.D., National Geographic, March 1971]

Non Nok Tha also yielded a copper tool dating back to 3,500 B.C.. and some double molds used in the casting of bronze, dating back to 2300 B.C, significantly older than similar samples found in India and China where it is believed bronze metal working began. Before Solheim it was thought that the knowledge of bronze working was introduced to Southeast Asia from China during the Chou dynasty (1122-771 B.C.). Solheim is sometimes called "Mr. Southeast Asia” for his role in putting ancient Southeast Asia on the cultural and historical map.

Ban Chiang Archeological Site

Ban Chiang is an archeological site located on he Khorat Plateau in northeastern Thailand. Among the discoveries made at a 124-acre mound site there were bracelets and bronze pellets (used for hunting with splits-string bows), and lovely painted ceramics first dated to 3500 B.C. [Source: John Pfeiffer, Smithsonian magazine]

The Ban Chiang site was discovered in 1966 by Steve Young, an anthropology and government student at Harvard College who was living in the village conducting interviews for his senior honors thesis. Young, a speaker of Thai, was familiar with Solheim’s work and his theory of possible ancient origins of civilization in Southeast Asia. One day while walking down a path in Ban Chiang with his assistant, an art teacher in the village school, Young tripped over a root of a Kapok tree and fell on his face in the dirt path. Under him were the exposed tops of pottery jars of small and medium sizes. Young recognized that the firing techniques used to make the pots were very rudimentary but that the designs applied to the surface of the vessels were unique. He took samples of pots to Princess Phanthip Chumbote who had the private museum of Suan Pakkad in Bangkok and to Chin Yu Di of the Thai Government's Fine Arts Department Later, Elisabeth Lyons, an art historian on the staff of the Ford Foundation, sent sherds from Ban Chiang to the University of Pennsylvania for dating. [Source: Wikipedia]

During the first formal scientific excavation in 1967, several skeletons, together with bronze grave gifts, were unearthed. Rice fragments have also been found, leading to the belief that the Bronze Age settlers were probably farmers. The site's oldest graves do not include bronze artifacts and are therefore from a Neolithic culture; the most recent graves date to the Iron Age.

Most of the bronze made Ban Chiang is ten percent tin and 90 percent copper. This it turns out is an ideal proportion. Any less tin, the metal fails to reach maximum hardness. Any more, the metal becomes too brittle and there is more of a chance it will break during forging. The Ban Chiang culture also developed bronze jewelry with a silvery sheen by adding 25 percent tin to the surface layers of the bronze at a heat of 1000°F and plunging it quickly into water.

Iron was developed at Ban Chiang around 500 B.C. Ceramic funerary vessels dating between 3600 B.C. and 1000 B.C. contained the remains infants between one month and two years old. Others contain remains of rice, fish and turtles. The vessels come in a number of different styles and sizes. The largest are three feet tall. Some are painted with human, animal and plant figures as well as abstract circular and linear designs. Others have chord makings made by placing chord in wet clay.

Ban Chiang Culture

According to the UNESCO World Heritage site description of Ban Chiang: “ Until the 1960s. south-east Asia was considered to have been a culturally backward area in prehistory. The generally accepted view was that its cultural development resulted from external influences, principally from China to the north and India to the west. Recent archaeological work at Nok Nok Tha and, later, Ban Chiang on the Khorat plateau of north-east Thailand has demonstrated this view to be incorrect: this area of modem Thailand has been shown by excavation and field survey to have been the centre of an independent, and vigorous, cultural development in the 4th millennium B.C. which shaped contemporary social and cultural evolution over much of southeast Asia and beyond. into the Indonesian archipelago. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Advisory Body Evaluation]

Settlement of the Khorat plateau began around 3600 B.C. The settlers came from the neighbouring lowlands, bringing with them a hunter-gatherer economy that was beginning to develop sedentary farming, with domesticated cattle, pigs, and chickens and an elementary form of dry-rice cultivation. The settled village life of this Early Period at Ban Chiang lasted until c. 1000 B.C. Agricultural methods were refined and improved, along with other skills such as house construction and pottery manufacture. The equipment of burials reflects an increasing social complexity. Of especial importance was the growing use of bronze, for weapons and personal ornament in the earlier phase but spreading to more utilitarian applications in the later phases.

The Middle Period (1000-500/300 B.C). was notable for the introduction of wet-rice farming, as evidenced by the presence of waterbuffalo bones, and technological developments in ceramic and metal production, It was a period of considerable prosperity, as shown by the grave-goods, and one which saw the introduction of iron into common use.

In the Late Period (500/300 BC-AD 200/300) there was further social and technological development. especially in ceramic design and production. Although occupation appears to have ended at Ban Chiang in the 3rd century AD, at other sites in the region, such as Non Maung and Ban Prasat, settlement was continuous into the 16th century and later.

Ban Chiang is considered to have been the principal settlement in this area of the Khorat plateau and has given its name to a distinctive archaeological culture. Scores of contemporary sites have been discovered in the region, at several of which excavations have been carried out. The prehistoric settlement lies beneath the modern village of Ban Chiang (established by Laotian refugees in the late 18th century). It is a low oval mound some 500m by 1.3km. Only very limited excavation has been possible in the settlement site, but this has established the existence of deep stratification and long cultural continuity.

The main excavations have taken place on the perimeter of the modem village, where a large number of burials from all three periods, with rich ceramic and metal grave-goods, have been revealed and recorded. One of the excavations has been preserved for public viewing, with a permanent cover building: there is an excellent site museum in another part of the village.

Better Dating of the Ban Chiang Culture and Looting of the Ban Chiang Site

According to Wikipedia: “The first datings of the artifacts using the thermoluminescence technique resulted in a range from 4420 B.C. to 3400 B.C., which would have made the site the earliest Bronze Age culture in the world. However, with the 1974/75 excavation, sufficient material became available for radiocarbon dating, which resulted in more recent dates—the earliest grave was about 2100 B.C., the latest about 200 AD. Bronze making began circa 2000 B.C., as evidenced by crucibles and bronze fragments. Bronze objects include bracelets, rings, anklets, wires and rods, spearheads, axes and adzes, hooks, blades, and little bells. [Source: Wikipedia*]

However, the date of 2100 B.C. was obtained by Joyce White on the basis of six AMS radiocarbon dating crushed potsherds containing rice chaff temper and one on the basis of rice phytoliths. The potsherds came from mortuary offerings. This method of dating is now known to be unreliable, because the clay from which the pots were made might well itself contain old carbon. Specialists in radiocarbon dating now encourage that the method is not employed. A new dating initiative for this site has now been undertaken by Professor Thomas Higham of the AMS dating laboratory at Oxford University, in conjunction with Professor Charles Higham of the University of Otago. This has involved dating the bones from the people who lived at Ban Chiang and the bones of animals interred with them. The resulting determinations have been analysed using the Bayesian statistic OxCal 4.0, and the results reveal that the initial settlement of Ban Chiang took place by Neolithic rice farmers in about 1500 B.C., with the transition to the Bronze Age in about 1000 B.C. These dates are a mirror image of the results from the 76 determinations obtained from a second and much richer Bronze Age site at Ban Non Wat. The mortuary offerings placed with the dead at Ban Chiang during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages were in fact, few and poor. *

The site made headlines in January 2008 when thousands of artifacts from the Ban Chiang cultural tradition and other prehistoric traditions of Thailand were found to illegally be in several California museums and other locations. The plot involved smuggling the items into the country and then donating them to the museums in order to claim large tax write offs. There were said to be more items in the museums than at the site itself. This was brought to light during high profile raids conducted by the police after a National Park Service agent had posed under cover as a private collector. If the US government wins its case, which is likely to take several years of litigation, the artifacts are to be returned to Thailand. *

Early Proto-Kingdoms in Thailand

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “With no written records or chronologies it is difficult to say with certainty what kind of cultures existed in Thailand before the middle of the first millennium AD. However, by the 6th century an important network of agricultural communities was thriving as far south as modern-day Pattani and Yala, and as far north and northeast as Lamphun and Muang Fa Daet (near Khon Kaen). [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

Before the end of the first millennium B.C., tribal territories had begun to coalesce into protohistorical kingdoms whose names survive in Chinese dynastic annals of the period.Funan, a state of substantial proportions, emerged in the second century B.C. as the earliest and most significant power in Southeast Asia. Its Hindu ruling class controlled all of present-day Cambodia and extended its power to the center of modern Thailand. The Funan economy was based on maritime trade and a well-developed agricultural system; Funan maintained close commercial contact with India and served as a base for the Brahman merchant-missionaries who brought Hindu culture to Southeast Asia. [Source: Library of Congress]

On the narrow isthmus to the southwest of Funan, Malay city states controlled the portage routes that were traversed by traders and travelers journeying between India and Indochina. By the tenth century A.D. The strongest of them, Tambralinga (present-day Nakhon Si Thammarat), had gained control of all routes across the isthmus. Along with other city-states on the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, it had become part of the Srivijaya Empire, a maritime confederation that between the seventh and thirteenth centuries dominated trade on the South China Sea and exacted tolls from all traffic through the Strait of Malacca. Tambralinga adopted Buddhism, but farther south many of the Malay city-states converted to Islam, and by the fifteenth century an enduring religious boundary had been established on the isthmus between Buddhist mainland Southeast Asia and Muslim Malaya.

Although the Thai conquered the states of the isthmus in the thirteenth century and continued to control them in the modern period, the Malay of the peninsula were never culturally absorbed into the mainstream of Thai society. The differences in religion, language, and ethnic origin caused strains in social and political relations between the central government and the southern provinces into the late twentieth century.

Early Mon and Khmer Influence in Thailand

In the A.D. ninth century, Mon and Khmer people established kingdoms that included large areas of what is now Thailand. Much of what these people absorbed from contacts with South Asian peoples—religious, social, political, and cultural ideas and institutions—later influenced the development of Thailand’s culture and national identity. In the second century B.C., the Hindu-led state of Funan in present-day Cambodia and central Thailand had close commercial contact with India and was a base for Hindu merchant-missionaries. In the southern Isthmus of Kra, Malay city-states controlled routes used by traders and travelers journeying between India and Indochina (present-day Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam). [Source: Library of Congress]

The closely related Mon and Khmer peoples entered Southeast Asia along migration routes from southern China in the ninth century B.C. The Khmer settled in the Mekong River Valley, while the Mon occupied the central plain and northern highlands of modern Thailand and large parts of Burma. Taking advantage of Funan's decline in the sixth century A.D., the Mon began to establish independent kingdoms, among them Dvaravati in the northern part of the area formerly controlled by Funan and farther north at Haripunjaya.

Dvaravati Civilization

Nakhon Pathom in central Thailand was the centre of the Mon Dvaravati culture, which arose in the 9th century and quickly declined in the 11th century under pressure from invading Khmers. A Mon kingdom – Hariphunchai – in today’s Lamphun Province, held out until the late 12th or early 13th century, when it was annexed by northern Thais.

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “Dvaravati is a Sanskrit name meaning Place of Gates, referring to the city of Krishna in the Indian epic poem Mahabharata. The French art historian Georges Coedès discovered the name on some coins that were excavated in the Nakhon Pathom area. The Dvaravati culture is known for its art work, including Buddha images (showing Indian Gupta influence), stucco reliefs on temple walls and in caves, architecture, exquisite terracotta heads, votive tablets and various sculptures. Dvaravati may have also been a cultural relay point for the Funan and Chenla cultures of ancient Laos and Cambodia to the northeast and east. The Chinese, through the travels of the famous pilgrim Xuan Zang, knew the area as Tuoluobodi, between Sriksetra (Myanmar) and Isanapura (Laos-Cambodia). [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

The Mon were receptive to the art and literature of India, and for centuries they were the agents for diffusing Hindu cultural values in the region. The frequent occurrence of Sanskrit place-names in modern Thailand is one result of the long and pervasive Indian influence. In the eighth century, missionaries from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) introduced the Mon to Theravada Buddhism. The Mon embraced Buddhism enthusiastically and conveyed it to the Khmer and the Malay of Tambralinga. The two Indian religious systems--Hindu and Buddhist--existed side by side without conflict. Hinduism continued to provide the cultural setting in which Buddhist religious values and ethical standards were articulated. Although Buddhism was the official religion of the Mon and the Khmer, in popular practice it incorporated many local cults.

In spite of cultural dominance in the region, the Mon were repeatedly subdued by their Burmese and Khmer neighbors.In the tenth century Dvaravati and the whole of the Chao Phraya Valley came under the control of Angkor.

Khmer and Srivijaya Civilzations of Thailand

In the tenth century Dvaravati and the whole of the Chao Phraya Valley came under the control of Angkor. The Khmer maintained the Hindu-Buddhist culture received from the Mon but placed added emphasis on the Hindu concept of sacred kingship. The history of Angkor can be read in the magnificent structures built to glorify its monarchy. Ultimately, however, obsession with palaces and temples led the Khmer rulers to divert too much manpower to their construction and to neglect the elaborate agricultural system-- part of Angkor's heritage from Funan--that was the empire's most important economic asset.

The Khmer empire lasted from the ninth to fifteenth centuries A.D. It was centered at Angkor (near modern Siem Reap) in Cambodia. The Khmers ruled much of Southeast Asia from Angkor Wat. In present-day Thailand a regional headquarters was set up in Lopburi. The Khmers referred to the Thais as the Syamas, or Siamese, then a group of people who lived in forest settlements.

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “The Khmer kingdom, with its capital in present-day Cambodia, expanded westward into a large swath of present-day Thailand between the 9th to 11th centuries. Much of Thailand made up the Khmer frontier with administrative capitals in Lopburi, Sukhothai and Phimai. Roads and temples were built linking these centres to the capital at Angkor. As a highly developed society, Khmer culture infused the border regions with its art, language, religion and court structure. Monuments from this period located in Kanchanaburi, Lopburi and many northeastern towns were constructed in the Khmer style, most notably found in Angkor. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

“Elements of the Khmer religions – Hinduism, Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism – were intermixed as Lopburi became a religious centre, and some elements of each Buddhist school – along with Hinduism – remain in Thai religious and court ceremonies today. A number of Thais became mercenaries for the Khmer armies in the early 12th century, as depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat. The Khmers called the Thais ‘Syam’, and 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’. [Ibid]

“Meanwhile southern Thailand – the upper Malay Peninsula – was under the control of the Srivijaya empire, the headquarters of which is believed to have been located in Palembang, Sumatra, between the 8th and 13th centuries. The regional centre for Srivijaya was Chaiya, near modern Surat Thani. Remains of Srivijaya art can still be seen in Chaiya and its environs.” Srivijaya was a maritime empire that lasted for 500. It ruled a string of principalities in what is today Southern Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. [Ibid]

Origin of the Thais

The Thai people are thought to have originated in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. They are related to other people that either live there now or originated there such as the Dai and the Lao. The Thais began migrating southward in successive waves, perhaps as early as A.D. 1050.

Speaking of the "Thai" actually means speaking about members of the Tai-Kadai language family, which consists of six subgroups, defined by their geographical settlement: 1) Western Thai (Shan); 2) Southern Thai (Siamese) ; 3) Mekong Thai (Lao, etc); 4) Upland Thai ("Coloured" Thai); 5) Eastern Thai (Nung, etc); 6) Kadai (Li, Kelao, Laqua). This way we can find many members of this language family in China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

The origin of the Thai and Thai-(Dai-) related people is matter of some debate. They have been in southwest China and Southeast Asia for some time. According to some their ancestors are mentioned in historical records dating back to the A.D. 1st century. The Dai established powerful local kingdoms such as Mong Mao and Kocambi in Dehong in the 10th and 11th centuries, the Oinaga (or Xienrun) in Xishuangbanna in the 12th century and the Lanna (or Babai Xifu) in northern Thailand in the 13th to 18th century.

According to the Library of Congress: The forebears of the modern Thai were Tai-speaking people living south of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) on the mountainous plateau of what is now the Chinese province of Yunnan. Early Chinese records (the first recorded Chinese reference to the Tai is dated sixth century B.C.) document the Tai cultivating wetland rice in valley and lowland areas.During the first millennium A.D., before the emergence of formal states governed by Tai-speaking elites, these people lived in scattered villages drawn together into muang, or principalities. Each muang was governed by a chao, or lord, who ruled by virtue of personal qualities and a network of patron-client relationships. Often the constituent villages of a muang would band together to defend their lands from more powerful neighboring peoples, such as the Chinese and Vietnamese.

The Dai have a tradition of dominating other ethnic groups such as the De’ang, Blang, Hani, Lahu, Achang and Jingpo. In some cases the Dai were powerful landlords and other tribes were like their serfs. Dai-controlled areas were on the fringes of the Chinese empire and separated from the main population centers by rugged mountains and rain forests. Beginning in the 14th century, the Chinese approved the Dai kings and nobles and officially recognized their control over other ethnic groups.

See Southeast Asia, See Dai, China

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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