The city-state of Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and established its capital in 1351 on the Chao Phraya River in central Thailand, calling it Ayutthaya, after Ayodhaya, the Indian city of the hero Rama in the Hindu epic “Ramayana” . In 1360 Ramathibodi (ruled 1351–69) declared Theravada Buddhism as the official religion and compiled a legal code based on Hindu legal texts and Thai custom that remained in effect until the late nineteenth century. [Source: Library of Congress]

Ayutthaya became the region’s most powerful kingdom, eventually capturing Angkor and forcing the Khmer to submit to Thai suzerainty. Rather than a unified kingdom, Ayutthaya was a patchwork of self-governing principalities and tributary provinces ruled by members of the royal family who owed allegiance to the king of Ayutthaya. The king, however, was an absolute monarch who took on god-like aspects. This belief in a divine kingship continued until the eighteenth century. The kingdom became increasingly sophisticated as new social, political, and economic developments took place. The states that made up Ayutthaya who had their own armies and warred among themselves. The king had to be vigilant to prevent royal princes from combining against him or allying with Ayutthaya's enemies. Whenever the succession was in dispute, princely governors gathered their forces and moved on the capital to press their claims.

Nourished by red soil, fish-filled rivers and ponds and vast rice fields, the kingdom grew by by crushing rebellions, conquering new kingdoms, and controlling more trade ports. The kingdom sustained an unbroken 400-year monarchical succession through 34 reigns, from King U Thong (r 1350–69) to King Ekathat (r 1758–67).

Rise and Internationalization of Ayutthaya

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “The Thai kings of Ayuthaya grew very powerful in the 14th and 15th centuries, taking over U Thong and Lopburi, former Khmer strongholds, and moving east in their conquests until Angkor was defeated in 1431. Even though the Khmers were their adversaries in battle, the Ayuthaya kings adopted large portions of Khmer court customs and language. One result of this acculturation was that the Thai monarch gained more absolute authority during the Ayuthaya period and assumed the title devaraja (god-king; thewárâat in Thai) as opposed to the dhammaraja (dharma-king; thammárâat) title used in Sukhothai. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

During its peak, Ayutthaya was home to more than one million people. As one of the wealthiest countries in Asia. It attracted traders, diplomats and adventurers from China, Japan, Cambodia, France, Britain, Portugal and the Netherlands. Engelbert Campher, a then British explorer, was recorded saying: "Among the Asian nations, the Kingdom of Siam (Ayutthaya) is the greatest. The magnificence of the Ayutthaya Court is incomparable." It has been said that London, at the time, was a mere village in comparison.

The historian David Wyatt wrote: [The] princes and officials constructed homes along the network of canals radiating eastward from the palace and Chinese and Indian merchants built their shops and warehouses along the river to the south.... [Outside the main walls of the city,]... the Chams attached to the army; there are a group of Malays who manned naval vessels, clustered around an Islamic house of worship; north of the city, [there was] a settlement of Roman Catholics descended from Portuguese and Japanese Christians.

In 1511 Ayutthaya received its first diplomatic mission from the Portuguese, who earlier that year had conquered the state of Malacca to the south. Ayutthaya concluded trade treaties with Portugal in 1516 and with the Netherlands in 1592 and established commercial ties with Japan and England in the seventeenth century. Thai diplomatic missions also went to Paris and The Hague. When the Dutch used force to extract extraterritorial rights and freer trade access in 1664, Ayutthaya turned to France for assistance in building fortifications. In addition to construction engineers, French missionaries and the first printing press soon arrived. Fear of the threat of foreign religion to Buddhism and the arrival of English warships provoked anti-European reactions in the late seventeenth century and ushered in a 150-year period of conscious isolation from contacts with the West.

Ramathibodi: Ayutthaya’s First King

The kingdom of Ayutthaya was founded by U Thong, an adventurer who is said to have descended from a rich Chinese merchant family who married into royalty. In 1350, to escape the threat of an epidemic, he moved his court south into the rich floodplain of the Chao Phraya. On an island in the river he founded a new capital, which he called Ayutthaya, after Ayodhya in northern India, the city of the hero Rama in the Hindu epic Ramayana. U Thong assumed the royal name of Ramathibodi.

Ramathibodi (1350-60) applied political skill and familial relations shrewdly to fill the void of power in Central Thailand following the decline of Sukhothai and the waning reach of Angkor. Installing his son on the throne of Lopburi and founding his new kingdom along the Chao Phraya River, Ramathibodi I, first King of Ayutthaya, established a powerful kingdom that may even have sacked Angkor.

In an effort to unify his kingdom Ramathibodi declared Theravada Buddhism the official religion of Ayutthaya in 1360 he and brought members of a sangha, a Buddhist monastic community, from Ceylon to establish new religious orders and spread the faith among his subjects. He also compiled a legal code, based on the Indian Dharmashastra (a Hindu legal text) and Thai custom, which became the basis of royal law. Composed in Pali—an Indo-Aryan language closely related to Sanskrit and the language of the Theravada Buddhist scriptures—it was backed by a mandate of divine injunction. Supplemented by royal decrees, Ramathibodi's legal code remained generally in force until the late nineteenth century.

Ramathibodi I organized the administration into four powers under Grand Ministers: State, the Royal Household, Treasury, and Agriculture. This administrative form was used throughout the over 400 years of the Ayutthaya period. About 80 years after Ayutthaya was established, the Khmer Empire fell to Ayutthaya, and its capital was moved from Angkor to Lovek and Phnom Penh, with a large number of Khmer war captives brought to Ayutthaya. They settled down and in time exerted considerable influence on the residents’ way of life and practices in the royal court. Ayutthaya gradually adopted the divine monarchy system. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

Ayutthaya’s Struggles with the Khmers and Malays

By the end of the fourteenth century, Ayutthaya was regarded as the strongest power in Southeast Asia, but it lacked the manpower to dominate the region. In the last year of his reign, Ramathibodi had seized Angkor during what was to be the first of many successful Thai assaults on the Khmer capital. Thai policy was aimed at securing Ayutthaya's eastern frontier by preempting Vietnamese designs on Khmer territory.

The Thais overwhelmed the Khmer empire in 1431 and extended their empire as far south as Malaysia. The weakened Khmer periodically submitted to Thai suzerainty, but efforts by Ayutthaya to maintain control over Angkor were repeatedly frustrated. Thai troops were frequently diverted to suppress rebellions in Sukhothai or to campaign against Chiang Mai, where Ayutthaya's expansion was tenaciously resisted. Eventually Ayutthaya subdued the territory that had belonged to Sukhothai, and the year after Ramathibodi died, his kingdom was recognized by the emperor of China's newly established Ming Dynasty as Sukhothai's rightful successor.

During much of the fifteenth century Ayutthaya's energies were directed toward the Malay Peninsula, where the great trading port of Malacca contested Thai claims to sovereignty. Malacca and other Malay states south of Tambralinga had become Muslim early in the century, and thereafter Islam served as a symbol of Malay solidarity against the Thai. Although the Thai failed to make a vassal state of Malacca, Ayutthaya continued to control the lucrative trade on the isthmus, which attracted Chinese traders of specialty goods for the luxury markets of China.

After a bloody dynastic struggle in the 1690s, Ayutthaya entered what some historians have called its golden age—a relatively peaceful period in the second quarter of the eighteenth century when art, literature, and learning flourished. During the 17th and 18th century the Thais moved down from the north and the Vietnamese came in from the east, occupying much of present-day Cambodia, and pushing the Khmer into a small corner of their former empire. By the middle of the 19th century, present-day Cambodia was essentially dived between the kingdom of Siam (the Thais) and the Vietnamese. Through the 18th century Ayutthaya continued to compete with Vietnam for control of Cambodia, but a greater threat came from Burma, where a new dynasty had subdued the Shan states.

War Elephants

According to journalist Douglas Chadwick Thailand and Burma "not only fought epic battles with elephants, the prototype of tanks, it was once fought because of them. When word reached a Burmese king that seven white elephants had been found and sent to the Thai monarch, he was overcome with jealousy and mounted an invasion."

Elephants served as armor in ancient battles in Asia. To the sound of drums, warrior with spears advanced on the backs of the elephants while soldiers with swords guarded the animals legs. War elephants sometimes wore heavy armor. They could be force in fighting and take out large numbers of enemy troops by simply crushing them under their feet but they also could become unmanageable if wounded.

There were many military purposes for which elephants could be used. In battle, war elephants were usually deployed in the centre of the line, where they could be useful to prevent a charge or to conduct one of their own. Their sheer size and their terrifying appearance made them valued heavy cavalry. Off the battlefield, they could carry heavy materiel and provided a useful means of transport. [Source: Wikipedia]

An elephant charge could reach about 30 km/h (20 mph), and unlike horse cavalry, could not be easily stopped by an infantry line setting spears. Such a charge was based on pure force: elephants crashing into an enemy line, trampling and swinging their tusks. Those men who were not crushed were at least knocked aside or forced back. Moreover, elephants could inspire terror in an enemy unused to fighting them - even the very disciplined Romans - and could cause the enemy to break and flee. Horses unaccustomed to the smell of elephants also panicked easily. The elephants' thick hide gave them considerable protection, while their height and mass offered considerable protection for their riders. Many generals preferred to base themselves atop elephants so as to get a better view of the battlefield.

In addition to charging, the elephants could provide a safe and stable platform for archers to fire arrows in the middle of the battlefield, from which more targets could be seen and engaged. The archery evolved into more advanced weapons, and several Khmer and Indian kings used giant crossbow platforms (similar to the ballista) to fire long armor-piercing shafts to kill other enemy war elephants and cavalry. The late 16th century AD also saw the use of culverin and jingals on elephants, an adaptation to the gunpowder age that ultimately drove elephants from the battlefield.

In Asia large numbers of men were carried, with the senior commander either utilising the howdah or leading from his seat on the elephant's neck. The driver, called a mahout, was responsible for controlling the animal. In many armies, the mahout also carried a chisel-blade and a hammer to cut through the spinal cord and kill the animal if the elephant went berserk.

Elephants were further enhanced with their own weaponry and armour. In India and Sri Lanka, heavy iron chains with steel balls at the end were tied to the trunks of war elephants, which the animals were trained to swirl menacingly and with great skill. Numerous cultures designed elephant Armour, aiming to protect the body and legs of the animal while leaving his trunk free to attack the enemy. Larger animals could also carry a protective tower on their backs, called a howdah.

War elephants had tactical weaknesses, however, that enemy forces often learnt to exploit. Elephants had a tendency to panic themselves: after sustaining painful wounds or when their driver was killed they would run amok, indiscriminately causing casualties as they sought escape. Their panicked retreat could inflict heavy losses on either side. One famous historical method for disrupting elephant units was the war pig. Ancient writers believed that "elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of a pig", and the vulnerability was exploited. At the Megara siege during the Diadochi wars, for example, the Megarians reportedly poured oil on a herd of pigs, set them alight, and drove them towards the enemy's massed war elephants. The elephants bolted in terror from the flaming squealing pigs.

Social and Political Development in the Ayutthaya Period

The king stood at the apex of a highly stratified social and political hierarchy that extended throughout the society. In Ayutthayan society the basic unit of social organization was the village community composed of extended family households. Generally the elected headmen provided leadership for communal projects. Title to land resided with the headman, who held it in the name of the community, although peasant proprietors enjoyed the use of land as long as they cultivated it. [Source: Library of Congress]

With ample reserves of land available for cultivation, the viability of the state depended on the acquisition and control of adequate manpower for farm labor and defense. The dramatic rise of Ayutthaya had entailed constant warfare and, as none of the parties in the region possessed a technological advantage, the outcome of battles was usually determined by the size of the armies. After each victorious campaign, Ayutthaya carried away a number of conquered people to its own territory, where they were assimilated and added to the labor force.

Every freeman had to be registered as a servant, or phrai, with the local lord, or nai, for military service and corvee labor on public works and on the land of the official to whom he was assigned. The phrai could also meet his labor obligation by paying a tax. If he found the forced labor under his nai repugnant, he could sell himself into slavery to a more attractive nai, who then paid a fee to the government in compensation for the loss of corvee labor. As much as one-third of the manpower supply into the nineteenth century was composed of phrai.

Wealth, status, and political influence were interrelated. The king allotted rice fields to governors, military commanders, and court officials in payment for their services to the crown, according to the sakdi na system. The size of each official's allotment was determined by the number of persons he could command to work it. The amount of manpower a particular nai could command determined his status relative to others in the hierarchy and his wealth. At the apex of the hierarchy, the king, who was the realm's largest landholder, also commanded the services of the largest number of phrai, called phrai luang (royal servants), who paid taxes, served in the royal army, and worked on the crown lands. King Trailok established definite allotments of land and phrai for the royal officials at each rung in the hierarchy, thus determining the country's social structure until the introduction of salaries for government officials in the nineteenth century.

The Chinese alone stood outside this social structure. They were not obliged to register for corvee duty, so they were free to move about the kingdom at will and engage in commerce. By the sixteenth century, the Chinese controlled Ayutthaya's internal trade and had found important places in the civil and military service. Most of these men took Thai wives because few women left China to accompany the men.

King Naresuan

In 1569 Burmese forces, joined by Thai rebels, captured the city of Ayutthaya and carried off the royal family to Burma. Dhammaraja (1569-90), a Thai governor who had aided the Burmese, was installed as vassal king at Ayutthaya. Thai independence was restored by his son, King Naresuan (1590- 1605), who turned on the Burmese and by 1600 had driven them from the country. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the decades before Naresuan assumed the throne, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya was in shambles. The throne was held by a puppet of neighboring Burma, which had recently conquered the city. While the Burmese razed, looted, and depopulated Ayutthaya for a decade, the Khmers decimated the Thai eastern provinces and there was little glimmer of respite or hope. Enter Naresuan who slew the Burmese crown prince in a duel atop war elephants and then proceeded to change the balance of power in Southeast Asia, ‘liberating’ Lan Na and even offering his navy to China for battle with Japan.

Determined to prevent another treason like his father's, Naresuan set about unifying the country's administration directly under the royal court at Ayutthaya. He ended the practice of nominating royal princes to govern Ayutthaya's provinces, assigning instead court officials who were expected to execute policies handed down by the king. Thereafter royal princes were confined to the capital. Their power struggles continued, but at court under the king's watchful eye. Also See Ayutthaya Kings and Kick Boxing Above.

In order to ensure his control over the new class of governors, Naresuan decreed that all freemen subject to phrai service had become phrai luang, bound directly to the king, who distributed the use of their services to his officials. This measure gave the king a theoretical monopoly on all manpower, and the idea developed that since the king owned the services of all the people, he also possessed all the land. Ministerial offices and governorships — and the sakdi na that went with them — were usually inherited positions dominated by a few families often connected to the king by marriage. Indeed, marriage was frequently used by Thai kings to cement alliances between themselves and powerful families, a custom prevailing through the nineteenth century. As a result of this policy, the king's wives usually numbered in the dozens.

Even with Naresuan's reforms, the effectiveness of the royal government over the next 150 years should not be overestimated. Royal power outside the crown lands — although in theory absolute- -was in practice limited by the looseness of the civil administration. The influence of central government ministers was not extensive beyond the capital until the late nineteenth century.

Muay Thai (Thai kick boxing) reportedly develop out of martial arts fighting techniques used in the 16th century by Thai soldiers in Ayutthaya. It traces its origin back to 1560 when King Naresuan was captured by the Burmese . Known as a skilled unarmed fighter, he was given a chance to fight for his freedom. The story goes he easily defeated his rivals and was hailed as a hero when he returned to Thailand and unarmed fighting was declared the national sport. The modern version of the sport has been around since 1920s. It is still taught to soldiers.

Other Ayutthaya Kings and Heros

Under King Borommatrailokkanat (1448-1488), the eighth monarch of Ayutthaya, the Kingdom enjoyed great prosperity, as he expanded the Kingdom and reformed the administration, by centralizing power in the king, and authorizing trusted royals and high-ranking officials to rule principal cities and tributary towns. During his reign, foreign trade was extensively promoted, especially with the Portuguese, Dutch, French, Chinese, and Japanese, making Ayutthaya a major trading city, as the city was located close to the Gulf of Siam, and hence easily accessible to foreign traders, who described Ayutthaya as one of the largest and wealthiest cities of the East. Extensive ruins in the Ayutthaya Historical Park today are testimony of its past glory and splendor. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

King Narai (ruled 1656 –1688) assumed the throne during a period of domestic and international uncertainty. Establishing a royal monopoly on nearly all goods produced in the kingdom, Narai fostered economic growth of the kingdom often at the expense of European trading companies and long-established communities of diverse foreign nationals. While wooed by Christian and Islamic proselytizers, Narai and his worldly Greek aide de camp established Siam as an influential player in international relations and Asian trade, balancing complex political and commercial interests.

Other Thai heros include the 17th century monarch, King Sanpetch, disguised himself as a commoner to test his Muay Thai skills and the 18th century soldier, Nai Khanoom Tom, who won his freedom during a war with Burma after defeating 12 of Burma's top-ranked fighters.

Samurai Warrior in Ayutthaya

Yamada Nagamasa (1590 – 1630) was a Japanese adventurer who gained considerable influence in Ayutthaya kingdom at the beginning of the 17th century and became the governor of the Nakhon Si Thammarat in southern Thailand. Yamada Nagamasa was born in Numazu in 1590. He is said to have been a palanquin bearer of the lord of Numazu. He became involved in Japanese trade activities with Southeast Asia during the period of the Red seal ships and settled in the kingdom of Ayutthaya (modern-day Thailand) from around 1612. [Source: Wikipedia]

Yamada Nagamasa is alleged to have carried on the business of a corsair or pirate from the period of 1620, attacking and plundering Dutch ships in and around Batavia (present day Jakarta). Stories of Yamada burying his treasure on the East Coast of Australia persist but it is highly unlikely that Yamada would have ventured along the east coast of Australia and, in particular, Magnetic Island off Townsville, as there were no trade routes in this region and the only ships to venture to this region were the ones blown off course during the summer storms. This is speculative, however: Yamada would have passed thousands of islands in the Torres Straits and Coral sea and these would have provided safe keeping for any treasure and avoided a very long recovery voyage in the future.

In the space of fifteen years, Yamada Nagamasa rose from the low Thai nobility rank of Khun to the senior of Ok-ya, his title becoming Ok-ya Senaphimuk. He became the head of the Japanese colony, and in this position supported the military campaigns of the Thai king Songtham, at the head of a Japanese army flying the Japanese flag. He fought successfully, and was finally nominated Lord of The World (modern Nakhon Si Thammarat), in the southern peninsula in 1630, accompanied by 300 samurai.

After more than twelve years in Siam, Yamada Nagamasa went to Japan in 1624 onboard one of his ships, where he sold a cargo of Siamese deer hide in Nagasaki. He stayed in Japan for three years, trying to obtain a Red Seal permit, but finally left in 1627, with the simple status of a foreign ship. In 1628, one of his ships transporting rice from Ayutthaya to Malacca was arrested by a Dutch warship blockading the city. The ship was released once the identity of the owner became clear, since the Dutch knew that Yamada was held in great respect by the King of Siam, and they did not wish to enter into a diplomatic conflict. Yamada was also valued by the Dutch as a supplier of deer hide, and they invited him to trade more with Batavia. Yamada became involved in a succession war in Siam following the death of the King Songtham. He was wounded in combat in 1630, and then apparently poisoned through his wound, which led to his death.

Nagamasa now rests in his hometown in the area of Otani in Japan . The remnants of the Japanese quarters in Ayutthuya are still visible to visitors, as well as a statue of Yamada in Siamese military uniform. Two films have been adapted from Yamada's life: “The Gaijin” (1959) and “Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothaya” (2010).

Japanese in Ayutthaya

Yamada Nagamasa lived in the Japanese quarters of Ayutthaya, home to another 1,500 Japanese inhabitants (some estimates run as high as 7,000). The community was called "Ban Yipun" in Thai, and was headed by a Japanese chief nominated by Thai authorities. It seems to have been a combination of traders, Christian converts who had fled their home country following the persecutions of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, and unemployed former samurai who had been on the losing side at the battle of Sekigahara. Senrakoku Fudo-gunki, a 17th century chronicler, wrote: “From the years of Gen'na (1615–24) through the later years of Kan'ei (1624–44), the Ro-nin or warriors who lost their lords after the defeats of the battle of Osaka (1614–15) or the earlier battle of Sekigahara (1600), as well as the defeated Christians of the Shimabara uprising, went to settle in Siam in great numbers

The Christian community seems to have been in the hundreds, as described by Padre Antônio Francisco Cardim, who recounted having administered sacrament to around 400 Japanese Christians in 1627 in the Thai capital of Ayuthaya ("a 400 japoes christaos"). The colony was active in trade, particularly in the export of deer-hide to Japan in exchange for Japanese silver and Japanese handicrafts (swords, lacquered boxes, high-quality papers). They were noted by the Dutch for challenging the trade monopoly of the Dutch East India Company (VOC).

The Japanese colony was highly valued for its military expertise, and was organized under a "Department of Japanese Volunteers" (Krom Asa Yipun) by the Thai king (See Yamada Nagamasa, Samuari Warrior Above). Following Yamada's death in 1630, the new ruler and usurper king of Siam Prasat Thong (1630–1655) sent an army of 4000 soldiers to destroy the Japanese settlement in Ayutthaya, but many Japanese managed to flee to Cambodia. A few years later in 1633, returnees from Indochina were able to re-establish the Japanese settlement in Ayutthaya (300-400 Japanese). From 1634, the Shogun, informed of these troubles and what he perceived as attacks on his authority, refused to issue further Red Seal ship permits for Siam. Desirous to renew trade however, the king of Siam sent a trading ship and an embassy to Japan in 1636, but the embassies were rejected by the Shogun, thus putting an end to direct relations between Japan and Siam. Japan was concomitantly closing itself to the world at that time, a period known as Sakoku. The Dutch took over the lucrative Siam-Japan trade from that time on.

Economic Development in the Ayutthaya Period

The Thai never lacked a rich food supply. Peasants planted rice for their own consumption and to pay taxes. Whatever remained was used to support religious institutions. From the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, however, a remarkable transformation took place in Thai rice cultivation. In the highlands, where rainfall had to be supplemented by a system of irrigation that controlled the water level in flooded paddies, the Thai sowed the glutinous rice that is still the staple in the geographical regions of the North and Northeast. But in the floodplain of the Chao Phraya, farmers turned to a different variety of rice — the so-called floating rice, a slender, nonglutinous grain introduced from Bengal — that would grow fast enough to keep pace with the rise of the water level in the lowland fields.

The new strain grew easily and abundantly, producing a surplus that could be sold cheaply abroad. Ayutthaya, situated at the southern extremity of the floodplain, thus became the hub of economic activity. Under royal patronage, corvee labor dug canals on which rice was brought from the fields to the king's ships for export to China. In the process, the Chao Phraya Delta — mud flats between the sea and firm land hitherto considered unsuitable for habitation — was reclaimed and placed under cultivation.

Trade was conducted on rivers. Maritime trade extended inland and ventured across oceans. Commerce was carried out with Pod Duang, ancient coins shaped like grubs.

Early History of Thailand and China

Trade between Thailand and China existed from an early period. Rhinoceros horn, kingfisher feathers and ivory were among the items sought by the Chinese. The famous 15th-century explorer-eunuch, Zheng He, commented that when he arrived in Thailand there were many Chinese who lived there because the women were easy to get. He also commented on the large number of monks and the fact that women seem to run everything.

“The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shore” , an account of Zheng He’s expeditions by a Chinese Muslim named Ma Huan, who served as an interpreter on at least three of the voyages, describes Thai men who put tin and gold balls in their foreskins, which “when the man walks around about, makes a tinkling sound... This is a most curios thing.”

By the time the Europeans arrived in what is now Thailand, Thai harbors were filled Chinese junks and Thai ports were home to Chinese that spoke a number of dialects. Thailand was a major destination for Chinese exports and was a major transshipment center for goods to other places and islands in Asia and Oceania. Bangkok was a Chinese trading post before it was an important Thai city. King Rama I was married to the daughter of a rich Chinese merchant.

By the 19th century, the Chinese were an important segment of Thai society. They ran much of the economy and controlled trade and in many ways were Thailand’s window to the outside world. In both Thailand and China their money help strengthen the economy and finance the construction of many temples and buildings.

Early Europeans in Thailand

The Portuguese were the first to arrive, They were followed the Dutch, 200 or so years later, and then the French. In 1511 Ayutthaya received a diplomatic mission from the Portuguese, who earlier that year had conquered Malacca. These were probably the first Europeans to visit the country. Five years after that initial contact, Ayutthaya and Portugal concluded a treaty granting the Portuguese permission to trade in the kingdom. A similar treaty in 1592 gave the Dutch a privileged position in the rice trade. After Ayutthaya was sacked the king granted Portugal land in the new capital of Bangkok. Portuguese remained the Thai language of diplomacy into the 19th century. France’s Louis XIV sent envoys to Ayutthaya.

Foreigners were cordially welcomed at the court of Narai (1657-88), a ruler with a cosmopolitan outlook who was nonetheless wary of outside influence. Important commercial ties were forged with Japan. Dutch and English trading companies were allowed to establish factories, and Thai diplomatic missions were sent to Paris and The Hague. By maintaining all these ties, the Thai court skillfully played off the Dutch against the English and the French against the Dutch in order to avoid the excessive influence of a single power. [Source: Library of Congress]

In 1664, however, the Dutch used force to exact a treaty granting them extraterritorial rights as well as freer access to trade. At the urging of his foreign minister, the Greek adventurer Constantine Phaulkon, Narai turned to France for assistance. French engineers constructed fortifications for the Thai and built a new palace at Lop Buri for Narai. In addition, French missionaries engaged in education and medicine and brought the first printing press into the country. Louis XIV's personal interest was aroused by reports from missionaries suggesting that Narai might be converted to Christianity.

The French presence encouraged by Phaulkon, however, stirred the resentment and suspicions of the Thai nobles and Buddhist clergy. When word spread that Narai was dying, a general, Phra Phetracha, killed the designated heir, a Christian, and had Phaulkon put to death along with a number of missionaries. The arrival of English warships provoked a massacre of more Europeans. Phetracha (reigned 1688-93) seized the throne, expelled the remaining foreigners, and ushered in a 150-year period during which the Thai consciously isolated themselves from contacts with the West. Farang—the Thai word for foreign of Europe decent—is an abbreviated form of the word “farangset” meaning “French.”

In the 18th century Thais considered Europeans in the same class of beings as evil spirits. On one 18th century Thai lacquer panel a Dutchmen is pictured with demons and pig-headed monsters trying to stab Buddha with a spear. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, March 1971]

Early History of Thailand and Laos

In the 14th century what is now northeastern Thailand was part of a Lao kingdom, which partly explains why so many Lao live there now, and was fought over by Lao and Thai dynasties. The Emerald Buddha, the most revered image in Thailand, was kept for many years in the Lao Kingdom and it was returned to Thailand in 1778. Carved from a single piece of green jasper, not real jade, this 2½-foot-high Buddha is mounted on multi-tiered golden altar. Thais say that as long as the Emerald Buddha stays in Thailand, Thailand will remain independent.

By the end of the 18th century Thailand had taken over much of the territory in northeast Thailand previously occupied by Lan Xang (the Lao kingdom). The Lao king in Luang Prabang gave the Thai king a tribute of gold flowers and silver and many members of the Lao royal family were educated in Bangkok.

In 1826 the Lao king Chao Anou suddenly declared war on Thailand. Before that time he had been an advocate of Thai rule. The rebellion was short lived. Chao Anou was captured by the Thai army and taken to Bangkok, where he was displayed in a cage before the Thai public. The Thai heroine Yo Ma has been lionized for leading Thai warriors to victory over an invading army from Laos on the early 19th century

As punishment for the rebellion, the Thais razed over 6,000 wooden houses and temples in Vientiane and forcibly moved almost the entire population of the city to Bangkok, where they were put to work building canals and other public works projects.

Thailand Verus Burma

The sixteenth century witnessed the rise of Burma, which, under an aggressive dynasty, had overrun Chiang Mai and Laos and made war on the Thai. In the mid-16th century Ayuthaya and the independent kingdom of Lanna came under the control of the Burmese, but the Thais regained rule of both by the end of the century. In 1569 Burmese forces, joined by Thai rebels, captured the city of Ayutthaya and carried off the royal family to Burma. Dhammaraja (1569-90), a Thai governor who had aided the Burmese, was installed as vassal king at Ayutthaya. Thai independence was restored by his son, King Naresuan (1590- 1605), who turned on the Burmese and by 1600 had driven them from the country.

The Burmese and Thais have traditionally been enemies. The King of Thailand used to use a fancy seven-story parasol for protection from the sun. As an expression of Burmese superiority, the Burmese ruler was known as the "Lord of Twenty-four Umbrellas." In Thailand, the 16th century warrior queen Suriyothai, who road an elephant into battle against the Burmese and gave her life to defend her husband’s kingdom, was the subject of a 2001 film.

Ayutthaya was invaded three times by Burmese conquerors. In the mid-sixteenth the Burmese kings Tabinshwehti and Bayinnaung launched attacks on Ayutthaya. In 1569, owing to internal rivalries and treason, Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese army, and saw its royal princes and high-ranking officials taken back to Hanthawady as captives. Among them was Prince Naresuan, who was able after eight years to return to Ayutthaya and start gathering troops to resist the Burmese.

As King Naresuan, he defeated the Burmese forces and declared Ayutthaya’s independence from the Burmese king, 15 years after Ayutthaya became a vassal state. Thereafter, Ayutthaya was free from wars for almost two centuries and became one of the most powerful kingdoms in the region. Foreign trade flourished, especially during King Narai’s reign in the mid-seventeenth century, bringing great prosperity to the Kingdom.

Fall of Ayutthaya

In the 18th century, the power of Ayutthaya gradually waned. At the same time, the Mon were waging wars with the Burmese in the western coastal cities. They were defeated, however, and fled to Ayutthaya. The Burmese pursued the Mon and finally invaded Ayutthaya with an overwhelming force.

In 1765 Thai territory was invaded by three Burmese armies—with 40,000 men—that converged on Ayutthaya. After a 14 month siege and amid the disarray in the royal court and the capital, Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese, and the city was ransacked, burned and completely destroyed in April 1767. Ayutthaya's art treasures, the libraries containing its manuscripts, literature, and the archives housing its historic records were almost totally destroyed, and the city was left in ruins. Temples were looted and members of the Thai royal family were captured and either executed or imprisoned.

After the destruction of Ayutthaya, Thailand was reduced to chaos. Provinces were proclaimed independent states under military leaders, rogue monks, and cadet members of the royal family. The Thai were saved from Burmese subjugation, however, by an opportune Chinese invasion of Burma and by the leadership of a Thai military commander, Phraya Taksin. After tragedy at Ayutthaya the Thais moved their capital to Bangkok.

Ayutthaya Ruins Today

Ayutthaya (60 miles north of Bangkok) was the capital of Thailand from 1350 until it was ransacked by the Burmese in 1767. For four centuries it was one of Asia's greatest cities. At its height it had perhaps a million people living its general vicinity and 4,000 war elephants. Designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Ayutthaya is laid out among trees, gardens, houses, fields and farms still in use today. Built on island situated between the confluence of the Chao Phraya River and two other rivers, it encompasses elaborately-decorated temples, some of which date back to the 12th century.

Some of the temples are little more than heaps of stones and bricks; others are nearly intact. Most of the major temples can be climbed for delightful views of the countryside. The most impressive structures resemble temples at Angkor Wat. They have ornately-carved stone stupas, and domes that look like bells with a javelin points sticking out of the top. Others have squared off bases and elaborate prangs that resemble a headdress on some great Hindu god. Many are made of reddish-colored bricks.

When it was the capital of Thailand, Ayutthaya was protected by six miles of walls. According to a Burmese account the city was defeated when get a great Thai cannon was loaded and lit but didn't fire. The Thai believed their most powerful spirit lived in the cannon and when it didn't go off they gave up.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet (Ayutthaya) is the original royal temple. The grandest looking of the temples in Ayutthaya, it can be climbed for a nice view and has three restored stupas. Across a road from Wat Phra Si Sanphet is a wonderful garden with a teak pavilion that was used by the Thai kings 500 years ago. The fact the pavilion is still standing will give you some idea of how strong teak is. Next to the garden stands Phra Mangala Bophit, a huge bronze Buddha, that has recently had a roof placed over it to keep it protected.

Wat Phanan Choeng (in Ayutthaya) is a riverside temple that predates the establishment of Ayutthaya by 26 years. Founded in 1324, it houses a huge 65-foot-high seated Buddha which attracts worshippers from all over Thailand. Other Sukhothai and Ayutthaya style images in the temple include one made from gold alloy and another made of silver.Wat Phra Maya is a royal palace founded in 1384. It is spread out over a large area and has a huge wall and beautiful columns.

Other Temples in Ayutthaya include Wat Lokaya Sutha, which contains a large reclining Buddha; Wat Raj Burana and Wat Phra Maya, which are partially ruined by still impressive; Wat Damrik Raj, simple and dignified, with a crumbling stupa; Vihara Phra Mongkol Bopitir, with one of the largest coated bronze Buddha images in Thailand; and Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, featuring dozens of life-size sitting Buddhas covered in saffron robes donated by religious supplicants.

Chao Samphraya Nation Museum has an extensive collection of Ayutthaya-period artifacts, including bronze Buddha images, carved wooden doors and panels. The most valuable art objects are the royal gilded ornaments found in 1958 in the crypt of Wat Rajaburana from the early Ayutthaya period. Chandra Krasem National Museum houses a collection of objects and artifacts, mostly Buddha images found at Ayutthaya. The museum is located in an old palace belonging to the viceroy of Ayutthaya and restored under King Rama IV.Ayutthaya Historical Study Center contains models of the royal, religious, commercial and daily activities of people who lived in the Ayutthaya Period.

Kala Temple is a temple complex centered around a 10th-century Khmer “prang” with three huge water-filled urns which are used by a troop of monkeys as swimming pools. Sometimes the monkeys dive into the urns from the branches of overhanging trees. Wat Chai Wattanaram (a few miles away from Ayutthaya) is a recently restored temple which will give you some idea of what the Ayutthaya temples were like back in the 15th century. Monks still buzz around and keep the place tidy. Rows and rows of Buddha statues and flowers line the walkway that leads to the main kaiser- helmet-shaped stupa.

Phraya Taksin and the Thon Buri Period (1767–82)

Burmese armies had decimated Ayutthaya in 1767, leaving but a small garrison behind in the ravaged capital. The Siamese, with no capital, no king, and no government were in despair. The Governor of Tak—Phraya Taksin (ruled 1767 – 1782), a half Chinese-half Thai man of considerably charisma and military cunning established his base at Thonburi and defeated the remaining Burmese troops. His ability to raise capital and re-conquer all the Siamese territory once held by Ayutthaya –in addition to annexing Siem Reap and Battambang and later subjugating Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Chiang Mai- allowed him to justify his ascension to the throne he had usurped.

After the sacking of Ayutthaya, the Thai made a quick recovery under the brilliant leadership of the military skill of commander Phraya Taksin (also known as Taksin Thonburi and Phraya Tak). Taksin had escaped from the besieged Ayutthaya and, starting with a handful of followers who quickly grew into an army, organized resistance to the Burmese invaders. a valiant warrior, broke through the besieging Burmese forces before the fall of Ayutthaya and, after six months mustering his forces, he took Ayutthaya back from the Burmese. However, he considered Ayutthaya too damaged to be renovated as a capital, and decided to establish Thon Buri, farther south on the Chao Phraya River,

Thon Buri was a fortress town set up on the delta at across the river from modern Bangkok. After the fall of Ayutthaya, the whole country was in chaos. People lived in fear even after the Burmese troops were gone. Famine had spread everywhere, so the King gave his own funds to buy rice as food relief for the people. King Taksin turned to maritime trade to revive the destroyed economy, as income from taxes could not be counted on while people struggled for survival in the post-war situation. Also, local products were promoted, to create jobs. Friendly ties with China were enhanced. At the same time, those who had fled Ayutthaya under the Burmese assault were encouraged to return to enliven the new capital city.

By 1774 Taksin had annexed Lan Na and by 1776 he had reunited the Thai kingdom, which had fragmented into small states after the fall of the old capital, and had annexed Chiang Mai. Taksin had to exert his utmost efforts to rein in various resistance groups and those who had broken away and set up independent fiefdoms all over the country, often through the use of force.

Toward the end of his reign, rivalry for power intensified. Finally, his close aide and leading warrior, Chao Phraya Chakri, took control of the situation and brought in the Rattanakosin period, thus ending the Thon Buri period, which had only one monarch, King Taksin the Great. Taksin, who eventually developed delusions of his own divinity, was deposed and executed in 1782 by his ministers, invoking the interests of the state. His manifold accomplishments, however, won Taksin a secure place among Thailand's national heroes.

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.

Last updated May 2014

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