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. The glorious history of the Thai state provides a celebrated legacy of numerous historical sites, artifacts, customs, and traditions, adding to the fascination of the land. The recorded history of the Thai state can be divided into four periods, which are discussed below.

Sukhothai Period (1238-1438)

The Kingdom of Sukhothai, or the Dawn of Happiness, is regarded as the beginning of the Thai nation state, and the first Thai kingdom, established in 1238 by King Si Inthrathit, who established the tradition of a benign, fatherly rule. The best-known ruler of the Kingdom of Sukhothai, however, was King Ramkhamhaeng, his second son, who guided the Sukhothai Kingdom to the zenith of progress and prosperity in terms of the economy, the arts, culture, and power. Moreover, the King invented the Thai script and had a stone inscription made. In his reign, the Kingdom of Sukhothai expanded in territory and especially in economic clout, as the Kingdom embraced a free trade system, levying no taxes. Sukhothai thus grew into a major trade hub and a center of diverse cultures.

Endowed with rich natural resources at their disposal, the people were engaged primarily in agriculture. After the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng, however, the Sukhothai Kingdom lost much of its power. King Maha Thammaracha I, or King Lithai, who ruled Sukhothai during the period 1347-1370, brought in Buddhism, to be propagated among the citizens and to restore the administration. But after his death, the Kingdom of Sukhothai further declined in power, and various satellite states gradually broke away. The establishment of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya to the south in 1350 also affected Sukhothai’s stability, as Ayutthaya was situated in a more strategic and more fertile location than Sukhothai was. Owing to the combination of all these factors, compounded by internal political problems, the Kingdom of Sukhothai was finally merged into the Ayutthaya Kingdom, with merely the status of a local center north of Ayutthaya.

Ayutthaya Period (1350-1767)

King Uthong established the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1350, and crowned himself King Ramathibodi I, the first monarch of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. He 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.

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.

In the mid-sixteenth century, however, the Burmese kingdom became stronger and began its expansion, with King Tabinshwehti and King Bayinnaung launching 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.

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. After months of siege and amid the disarray in the royal court and the capital, Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese, and the city was ransacked and completely destroyed in April 1767.

Thon Buri Period (1767-1782)

Phraya Tak, 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, crowning himself King Taksin. 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.

Moreover, King 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.

Rattanakosin Period (1782 – the present)

The Rattanakosin period is a time for manifesting changes, development, progress, and greater prosperity in Thailand, under the inspired leadership and dedication of the nine monarchs of the Royal House of Chakri, founded by King Rama I, or Chao Phraya Chakri, who established himself as a Chakri King, with the city of Rattanakosin, opposite Thon Buri, as the royal capital. Because his goal was to reassert Ayutthaya’s past glory on this site, King Rama I selected Rattanakosin as his royal capital because of its topographical similarity to Ayutthaya, with the Chao Phraya River from the north passing along the western and southern sides to empty into the Gulf of Thailand; branches of the river also formed double rings around the city-island. Faced with the continuing Burmese threat, such a strategic location was then a necessity.

Contact with foreign countries heightened in the Second Reign, that of King Phraphutthaloetla Naphalai (Rama II). The Portuguese Consulate, the first foreign consulate in Siam, started its diplomatic and trade missions, dealing with countries such as China and Sri Lanka. Later, in the reign of King Phranangklao (Rama III), a large number of academics and medical doctors from Great Britain and the United States of America came to Siam to propagate Christianity. The most notable among them was Dr. Dan Beach Bradley, an American doctor who introduced Thai typesetting for the first time, to publish Christian teachings in Thai. As a qualified surgeon, he also performed operations in this country. The first Thai newspaper was launched in 1844.

Treaties with Western countries and extensive economic reforms were carried out in the Fourth Reign, with treaties concluded with up to 10 countries in 1855. King Mongkut (Rama IV) retained foreigners as Thai consuls for the first time. Such foreign contacts brought more progress and prosperity to the Kingdom. Moreover, King Mongkut was a self-taught astronomer who accurately predicted a full solar eclipse, and was honored as the “Father of Thai Science” in later days.

A great change came to Siam in the Fifth Reign, that of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), who abolished slavery. He also commanded that the Thai people be allowed to choose their faith freely, with liberty for both Christians and Muslims to perform their religious rites. Electricity and waterworks were introduced in his reign, along with the use of banknotes and coins in daily exchanges. Most importantly, King Chulalongkorn held fast to Siam’s sovereignty and independence amid pressures from France and Britain, opting to lose some territory to both powers, rather than yield to colonial rule.

In the reign of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI), tertiary education was introduced, and subsequently the School for Civil Servants, earlier established at King Chulalongkorn’s royal initiative, was upgraded into Chulalongkorn University, the first university in Siam. Because King Vajiravudh was greatly talented in the arts and literature, he was later honored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as one of the world’s great personalities, a king with distinguished achievements in culture as a scholar and a writer.

During the reign of King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), a major event took place when Siam changed from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary democracy. The King’s consent to relinquish his power peacefully and become a constitutional monarch made the event one of the few bloodless regime changes the world has seen. The King later abdicated, and was succeeded by his nephew, Prince Ananda Mahidol. During this Eighth Reign, the name of the country was changed from “Siam” to “Thailand” in 1939.

The present monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), is the country’s and the world’s longest-reigning monarch. Apart from his royal activities to help develop the country by developing agriculture, uplifting the people’s livelihood, and rehabilitating and conserving natural resources – such as his Sufficiency Economy philosophy, royal rainmaking project, Monkey’s Cheek weir project, and various royal projects – His Majesty also attaches great importance to the Thai people’s health; he has often stated that people in bad health would not be able to develop the country. Hence, numerous projects on medical and public health services came about. On the international front, His Majesty has wisely tightened relations between Thailand and various countries, by paying state visits to countries in Asia, America, and Europe, as well as welcoming leaders of those countries on their return visits as royal guests.

The abilities and talents of every Thai monarch, combined with their open attitude toward new learning and technology from abroad, especially in the Rattanakosin period, have led Thailand to a much-improved way of life, administrative system, and economy, attesting to true “Thainess” as a perfect blend of fine old traditions, fascinating art, and unique cultural heritage with fertile influences from abroad through growing foreign contacts.