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The Birth of Siam

   by Charles Kimball

Nan Zhao was destroyed by the Mongols in 1253, but long before that time small groups of Thais moved out in search of greener pastures. One group already mentioned, the Shans, settled eastern Burma. Others included the Lao, who settled the Khorat Plateau and the upper Mekong valley; the Ahom or Assamese, who have been the dominant group in northeast India since 1228; the White, Red and Black Thai, who stayed in the highlands of Indochina and derived their names from the main color of their clothing; and a group called the Small Thai, who settled in the heart of modern Thailand, the Menam (Chao Phraya) valley.

Those Thais who stayed at home became the Zhuang, the largest (12 million) ethnic minority in modern China. Wherever they went the Thais became both settlers and mercenaries. Once they left China they discarded the culture that they learned from the Chinese, since it was now a symbol of oppression. In its place they learned Theravada Buddhism from the Mons, the arts from the Khmers, and developed an alphabet based on the scripts of both.

As long as Southeast Asia was ruled by strong empires like Pagan and Kambujadesa, the Thais were no threat. But when those empires weakened in the thirteenth century the Thais found a vacuum they could fill. In several places along the Menam River Thai mercenaries revolted, setting up independent muang or city-states in place of Khmer rule. The most important of these was Sukhothai, founded around 1238 on the upper Menam, and Lan Na ("One Million Rice Fields"), farther north on the same river. Lan Na's first ruler, Mangrai (1259-1318), was an excellent monarch, who defeated and conquered several rival muang around him and made his kingdom both civilized and powerful. He even defeated the Mongols when they invaded Lan Na in 1296 and 1301. After making a few counter-raids of his own into China, Mangrai sent elephants and other gifts to the court of the Great Khan, and Sino-Thai relations were fine after that. In 1296 he founded an impressive new capital, Chiangmai, and the kingdom of Lan Na is usually referred to as Chiangmai after this.

Mangrai's successors quarreled over the Chiangmai throne for eleven years (1318-29), and by the time stability returned the southern kingdom of Sukhothai had clearly become the leader among the Thai states. Sukhothai's first two kings are obscure, but the third was a multi-talented monarch called Rama Khamheng, or Rama the Brave (1279-1317). Under him Sukhothai grew from just another muang into a "super-muang"; most of Malaya, Laos, eastern and central Thailand came under his rule, and he also made vassals of the Mons in Burma. Rama Khamheng was a fearless warrior, but most of the time he did not have to fight; his reputation went ahead of him and caused most enemies to submit without a battle. He made two trips in person (1294 and 1300) to pay tribute at the court of the Great Khan, thereby escaping the Mongol raids that fell upon the rest of Southeast Asia.(1)

On top of other things, Rama Khamheng claimed to be the inventor of the Thai alphabet. Whether or not this is true, the oldest known Thai inscription was written by him. Dated 1292, it portrays Sukhothai as a rich and happy state, active in trade, and governed by a paternal monarch; taxes were modest, all citizens (both Thai and non-Thai) were treated with equal justice, and everyone followed Buddhism. Allowing for some exaggeration of the country's virtues, the picture presented still shows a remarkable contrast to life under the Khmer god-kings, who demanded much in labor and taxes to support themselves and a religion that had little relevance to the commoner's life.

King Rama Khamheng was able to be a good ruler, warrior, diplomat and patron of Buddhism and the arts--all at the same time. His successors were not so talented; his son, Lo Thai, devoted his energy to Buddhism and neglected everything else. Under him it became difficult to rule the kingdom from a capital that was far removed from the centers of agriculture and population. Many muang on the kingdom's periphery seceded, claiming that their submission to Rama Khamheng was now null and void. One of these local princes, Rama T'ibodi I, revolted and founded a new capital, Ayutthaya (also called Ayuthia or Ayudhya), on the lower Menam. Sukhothai's fifth king, the monkish Li Thai, recognized superior leadership and abdicated to him. That marked the beginning of Siam's Ayutthayan era, a time future Thais would regard as a golden age.

- It was around this time that the Chinese started calling Sukhothai "Xian," and neighboring states like Vietnam called it "Syam." From these names we get "Siam," Thailand's official name until 1939.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball