History of Thailand


Over the course of millennia, migrations from southern China peopled Southeast Asia, including the area of contemporary Thailand. Archaeological evidence indicates a thriving Paleolithic culture in the region and continuous human habitation for at least 20,000 years.

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.

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 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.

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.

On the narrow isthmus to the southwest of Funan, Malay citystates 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.

The Mon and the Khmer

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. Meanwhile the Khmer laid the foundation for their great empire of the ninth to fifteenth centuries A.D. This empire would be centered at Angkor (near modern Siem Reap) in Cambodia.

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. The Khmer maintained the HinduBuddhist 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 Tai People: Origins and Migrations

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 Taispeaking 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 state of Nanchao played a key role in Tai development. In the mid-seventh century A.D., the Chinese Tang Dynasty, threatened by powerful western neighbors like Tibet, sought to secure its southwestern borders by fostering the growth of a friendly state formed by the people they called man (southern barbarians) in the Yunnan region. This state was known as Nanchao. Originally an ally, Nanchao became a powerful foe of the Chinese in subsequent centuries and extended its domain into what is now Burma and northern Vietnam. In 1253 the armies of Kublai Khan conquered Nanchao and incorporated it into the Yuan (Mongol) Chinese empire.

Nanchao's significance for the Tai people was twofold. First, it blocked Chinese influence from the north for many centuries. Had Nanchao not existed, the Tai, like most of the originally non-Chinese peoples south of the Chang Jiang, might have been completely assimilated into the Chinese cultural sphere. Second, Nanchao stimulated Tai migration and expansion. Over several centuries, bands of Tai from Yunnan moved steadily into Southeast Asia, and by the thirteenth century they had reached as far west as Assam (in present-day India). Once settled, they became identified in Burma as the Shan and in the upper Mekong region as the Lao. In Tonkin and Annam, the northern and central portions of present-day Vietnam, the Tai formed distinct tribal groupings: Tai Dam (Black Tai), Tai Deng (Red Tai), Tai Khao (White Tai), and Nung. However, most of the Tai settled on the northern and western fringes of the Khmer Empire.

The Thai have traditionally regarded the founding of the kingdom of Sukhothai as marking their emergence as a distinct nation. Tradition sets 1238 as the date when Tai chieftains overthrew the Khmer at Sukhothai, capital of Angkor's outlying northwestern province, and established a Tai kingdom. A flood of migration resulting from Kublai Khan's conquest of Nanchao furthered the consolidation of independent Tai states. Tai warriors, fleeing the Mongol invaders, reinforced Sukhothai against the Khmer, ensuring its supremacy in the central plain. In the north, other Tai war parties conquered the old Mon state of Haripunjaya and in 1296 founded the kingdom of Lan Na with its capital at Chiang Mai.


Situated on the banks of the Mae Nam Yom some 375 kilometers north of present-day Bangkok, Sukhothai was the cradle of Thai civilization, the place where its institutions and culture first developed. Indeed, it was there in the late thirteenth century that the people of the central plain, lately freed from Khmer rule, took the name Thai, meaning "free," to set themselves apart from other Tai speakers still under foreign rule.

The first ruler of Sukhothai for whom historical records survive was Ramkhamhaeng (Rama the Great, 1277-1317). He was a famous warrior who claimed to be "sovereign lord of all the Tai" and financed his court with war booty and tribute from vassal states in Burma, Laos, and the Malay Peninsula. During his reign, the Thai established diplomatic relations with China and acknowledged the Chinese emperor as nominal overlord of the Thai kingdom. Ramkhamhaeng brought Chinese artisans to Sukhothai to develop the ceramics industry that was a mainstay of the Thai economy for 500 years. He also devised the Thai alphabet by adapting a Khmer script derived from the Indian Devanagari script.

Sukhothai declined rapidly after Ramkhamhaeng's death, as vassal states broke away from the suzerainty of his weak successors. Despite the reputation of its later kings for wisdom and piety, the politically weakened Sukhothai was forced to submit in 1378 to the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya.

Thailand History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress