Thai History in a Nutshell

A khmer style temple from the old capital of Ayuthaya.

Archaeological evidence so far dates settlement of Thailand back at least 5,000 years. Successive migrations of Mons from the west, Khmer from the east and Tai from the north settled more of the country. By the height of the Khmer kingdom based in Angkor in the 11th century, Cambodia controlled much of what is now Thailand.

By late in the 13th century, Angkor's power was on the wane, and several northern chieftans came together to form the first "Thai" kingdoms of Sukhothai, Lanna and Phayao. Although the period is heavily romanticized by the Thais themselves, a visit to Sukhothai itself demonstrates that there was a significant kingdom established here, capable of erecting huge monuments which must have required a good sized economic and social base to achieve.

Sukhothai flourished and expanded for nearly 200 years, but power eventually shifted southward to Ayuthaya, which was founded in the mid-fourteenth century. Under the 33 kings of Ayuthaya, Thai influence expanded until they held sway over the entire Malay peninsula and much of what is today Laos and Cambodia. During this time, the first formal contacts between Siam and Europe were established, and around Ayuthaya today there are the remains of the Portuguese village as well as a Japanese area.

Late in the 18th century, the Burmese launched an attack on Siam and managed to take Ayuthaya, burning and sacking the entire town. The Thais regrouped under a general named Taksin, who managed to expel the Burmese and then established a new capitol in Thonburi, on the east bank of the Chaophraya river across from what is today Bangkok. Taksin's commander of the army, general Chakri, later returned from subduing rebel provinces in the East to find that Taksin had gone insane.

General Chakri had Taksin executed and himself crowned king Rama I, the first of the Chakri kings that rule Thailand to this day. Rama I moved the capitol across the river to the more defensible village of Bangkok. His successors managed to maintain Thailand's independence by dealing away the vassal states - Laos and Cambodia to the French, the Malay peninsula to the British - in the late 19th century. Thailand remained an absolute monarchy up until 1932, when a coup (the first of many) forced a new constitution on the then king Rama VII. However, the king remains a highly respected figure to this day, and lesse majeste laws are taken very seriously.

Evidence of the country's rich history can be found all over the country. If you'd like to see some of them, check out our list of historic sites that are most interesting to visit.

More Information

Library of Congress
The US Library of Congress provides a nice overview of Thai history and other information on Thailand. Not pretty, but very informative.

Further Reading

Bangkok Story of a City
We recently came across a book which qualifies as a "must read" for almost any long term visitor to Thailand. Bangkok Story of a City by Alec Waugh is a highly readable history of Bangkok, although the focus is really on the Chakri dynasty who founded the capitol 200 years ago. With enough court intrigue, popular uprisings and revolutions to match any Hollywood epic, its hard to put down. Although it was originally published in 1970 it still gives you a very real insight into what makes Thailand tick. You can order a copy from or if you're in Thailand, local reprints are available in some bookstores around Bangkok.