The history of Thailand is long and complex. The country experienced great splendor during successive kingdoms between the 10th and 14th centuries, and it had various periods of political instability due to poor political management or military regimes.
Now the country is enjoying a period of peace and stability, generating good economic growth. Knowing about the history of Thailand will allow you to understand the many changes that have formed Thai people and their rich culture.
Early Kingdoms (9th century BC–11th century AD)
Records of the earliest inhabitants of Thailand date to the Paleolithic period, 20,000 years ago.
In the 9th century BC, Mon and Khmer people established themselves in modern Thailand, and their cultures influenced the development of Thai culture. Around the 6th century BC, Thailand saw strong development of its agriculture and trade with India.
From the 7th to the 11th century AD, Dvaravati culture prevailed. Its power began to decline with the invasion of the Khmer Empire, which was expanding westward.
The period of hegemony of the Khmer Empire has left a legacy of many attractions, especially in the Kanchanaburi and Lopburi regions. The best-preserved Khmer temples in Thailand are Phanong Rung, Muang Tun, and Phimai.
Phanong Rung was constructed in the Angkor style between the 10th and 13th centuries. Its main tower is made with pink sandstone, and the complex symbolizes Mount Kailash, where according to Hindu beliefs, Shiva lives.
Muang Tun, near Phanong Rung, is 1,000 years old, and it lies at the base of an inactive volcano. Muang Tun is dedicated to Shiva, and it is quite a popular attraction, with many beautiful examples of the best Khmer architecture.
Phimai is the largest Khmer temple in Thailand. It was constructed as a Buddhist temple during the 11th century. At that time, a highway connected it to Angkor (presently Siem Reap).
Classical Thailand (10th–14th centuries)
During this period, Thailand was partly ruled by Khmer and Mon. It is believed that Thai people moved from Guangxi, China into the country around 700 AD. Around 800 AD, a Thai chief named Simhanavati founded the city of Chiang Saen, establishing the first contact between Thai people and the other civilizations of Southeast Asia.
When an earthquake destroyed Chiang Saen (around 1,000 AD), a local Wa man, Lavachakkaraj, became the new king. The dynasty he founded ruled over the country for 500 years.
In 1238, Sri Indratiya, a Thai prince, declared independence from the declining Khmer Empire and established a kingdom in Sukhothai. His kingdom quickly became powerful, taking advantage of the fading strength of the surrounding kingdoms. It expanded its influence to Burma (today Myanmar), Laos and the Malay Peninsula.
When Rama the Great died, the Sukhothai Kingdom began to decline, and in 1376 it was annexed by the rising kingdom of Ayutthaya, and then in 1438 completely absorbed. A national identity was gradually developing.
The ruins of the ancient Sukhothai are now covered by the Historical Park outside the modern city. The huge complex contains the ruins of the royal palace and twenty-six temples, and each year it hosts thousands of visitors.
The park (70 sq km) is protected by a square moat. The greatest temple is Wat Mahathat, the spiritual center of the city, regularly expanded down through the centuries. The oldest temple is Wat Phra Phai Luang; it predates the foundation of the city (around 1238 AD).
This amazing park is one of the best places for celebrating Loy Krathong, Thailand’s Light Festival, usually celebrated around November.
The city-state of Ayutthaya was founded in 1350, and it was one of the wealthiest cities in Asia. Its first ruler, King Uthong (1351-1369), established Theravada Buddhism as the official religion and compiled a legal code based on Hindu sources.
King Uthong became extremely powerful and successfully moved to conquer Angkor in 1431. The court of Ayutthaya adopted some of the Khmer customs and language. The 16th century was a period of economic growth; in 1700 AD, Ayutthaya was the largest city in the world.
The Ayutthaya period was the golden age for Thai literature, art, trade, and medicine. Nowadays, its temples and historical sites are a must-see for every traveler. The Historical Park, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, contains four temples and the Royal Palace.
Other popular attractions include the Bang Pa-In Summer Palace, built around the 17th century, set in a nice lake garden; or the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum, housing artifacts found inside the historical park.
Medieval Thailand (17th–18th centuries)
The powerful kingdom of Ayutthaya came to an end around 1760 AD with repeated attacks from Burmese armies. However, Siam made a quick recovery thanks to Taksin, a noble of Chinese descent. In only a year, Taksin defeated the Burmese army, established a new capital in Thonburi (across the river from modern Bangkok) and became king.
However, when Taksin became mad and started to claim divine status, his ministers, concerned to protect state interests, captured and executed him in 1782.
In 1782, one of Taksin’s generals, Chao Phraya Chakri, became king, calling himself Rama I. He moved the capital to Bangkok and established the ruling house that continues to the present day. The economy of the kingdom revived, and a process of general restoration began.
Rama II, the son of Chakri, took power in 1809. During his reign, Thailand saw a cultural renaissance that continued under Rama III (1824-1851), who worked to develop commercial trade with China and increase domestic agriculture. He also built the country’s first university at the temple of Wat Pho.
In Bangkok you can see the Grand Palace, the former residence of the royal family. Its construction began in 1782 under Rama I, and it remained the official residence of the king until 1925. Other kings, especially Rama V, added new buildings and structures.
The palace is eclectic and not symmetrical, the result of a combination of many different styles that followed each other down through the centuries. It is divided into many different sections; one is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew), the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand.
Early Modern Period (1851–1919)
Under Rama IV (1851-68), an innovative man of culture, Thailand re-opened to Western countries, and signed treaties with Britain, the USA, and France, among others. Commerce with the west increased, and the Thai economy became connected with the world monetary system. Rama IV’s son, Rama V, took power in 1837 and continued in the tradition of his father.
Siam greatly benefited from relationships with Europe, and the country kept growing and prospering. Rama V’s son, Mongkut Klao (or Rama VI), introduced compulsory education and further westernized the country.
Britain and France conquered surrounding countries in Southeast Asia, posing a serious threat to Siam’s independence. Siam was forced to give up territorial claims in countries such as Cambodia and Laos.
During World War I, Siam joined the Allies in the war against Germany. Thanks to this, after the war ended, Siam signed favorable treaties with both France and Britain, including the right to use German ships in its merchant navy.
Modern Thailand (1932–1955)
The revolution of 1932: Birth of the Constitutional Monarchy
When Pokklao (Rama VII, 1925-35) was king, a group of Thai students living in Paris, influenced by French democracy, began to despise Siam’s absolute monarchy and mounted a coup against it. The group of revolutionaries, called Khana Ratsadon, led a bloodless revolution that resulted in development of a constitutional monarchy.
A new party seized power, however, and this led to a counter-coup in 1933, the Boworadet Rebellion. After the revolt, the power of Plaek Pibulsonggram, Khana Ratsadon’s leader, increased, and he began to purge the country of political enemies.
The country was modernized while influenced by a strong nationalistic spirit. Plaek changed its name to Thailand, in an action directed against the country’s ethnic minorities and based on the idea of the “Thai race”.
During and After World War II
In 1941, Japan wanted to move its troops to Thailand, and Pibulsonggram, appointed acting regent for the absent king, ordered an armistice that led to an alliance between the two countries.
With Japan almost defeated, a movement of resistance forced Pibulsonggram out, ending his six years of government. After the war, Thailand returned territory to Cambodia and Laos, and postwar deals with the Allies further weakened the government.
Elections were held in 1946, and Pridi became Siam’s first democratically elected prime minister. After the assassination of the young king Ananda Mahidol, however, Pridi was forced to resign and Pibulsonggram returned from exile and became prime minister. Political opponents were arrested, and the country was ruled by a series of military governments.
A site of historical interest is Death Railway, a 415 km railway line built by the Japanese during the war. More than 100,000 people died during construction of the site. It is one of the most humbling places in all of Thailand, definitely worth a visit.
The railway was extremely difficult to build. Two of its most famous points are Bridge 277 (the famous “Bridge on the River Kwai”) and Hellfire Pass, which takes its name from the torches used by workers working at night.
Cold War (1957–1973)
In 1957, a bloodless coup ended Pibulsonggram’s career. Sarit Thanarat, the coup leader, became prime minister and stayed in power until his death, in 1963. The regime was strongly supported by the United States.
During the Vietnam War, Thailand became more and more westernized. The local economy grew in an extraordinary way, and thousands of rural Thai moved to the cities. The quality of life rose, and the population increased. Not everyone enjoyed this prosperity, however.
In many universities, students began to protest against the government, quickly followed by all kinds of workers. At the end of a flash rebellion, King Rama IX condemned the inability of political leaders to manage the situation, and placed a respected law professor, Dr. Sanya Dharmasakti, in charge of the government.
Prem Tinsulanonda, who ruled Thailand during the 1980s, was a democratic and practical man who introduced a more liberal regime. Except for a short military parenthesis in 1991-1992, the country has remained a democracy ever since.
In 1997, a new constitution was introduced, and in 2001 Thaksin Shinawatra came to power. After another bloodless coup in 2006, a general election in 2007 restored democracy, with Samak Sundaravej as prime minister.
The country saw two political crises, one in 2008-10 and the other in 2013-14, and a last coup in 2014, when the Thai army declared martial law. The military junta held a referendum on the new constitution that allows military men to be elected as prime ministers.
On 13 October 2016, King Rama IX died, and on the 1st of December Prem Tinsulanonda became the tenth king of the Chakri dynasty.
The Asia Highlights Experience
Visit Thailand with Asia Highlights and get to know the marvelous culture left behind by the ancient kingdoms. Booking with Asia Highlights means relying on our knowledgeable staff, who will craft for you the perfect trip, helping you to choose the best itinerary for admiring Thailand’s many attractions.