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This Ancient Land of Dinosaurs, Part IX

Man’s earliest true ancestor appeared on earth more than 2 million years ago, but it was not until 10,000 to 15,000 years ago that his descendants had peopled almost the entire globe. The first man known to have roamed beyond the continent of Africa was Homo erectus, who appeared about 500,000 years ago. During the 200,000 years of his existence, he moved around through Ethiopia, Yemen, Oman, South Persia, Pakistan, Central Bharata (India), Burma to reach Kanchanaburi and migrated to Baan Chiang that slowly spread to different directions. Sometime, somewhere __ the migration could go back to the same area and changed to the several other directions later on. Migrations depended on several factors __ geography, Climate, environment, food, living conditions, and their intelligence development.

From the last two Parts ... The celebrated 417 years of reign of Ayutthaya saw trade with China along with countries in South, Southeast Asia, East and West. The stable economics brought an era of peace. The method of river transportation was so developed that merchants from Lanxang, (Laos) and other areas continuously developed supporting overland trade. Europeans eagerly reported to their homeland in Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, England and France about the progress and developed trading system they found in Ayutthaya. There were glories and defeats during 1351-1767.

Bangkok and The Rattanakosin Era

We concluded last month with the Burmese destruction of Ayutthaya that plunged the Tai kingdom into turmoil. Due to ongoing wars with China, the Burmese were forced to withdraw the majority of their troops immediately after the victory with the result that a number of potential Tai leaders arose to fill the void; one of these was Praya Taaksin (พระยาตากสิน). Under his original name of Sin he had earlier been appointed Lord of Taak or Praya Taak (พระยาตากสิน), from whence his name of Taak-Sin evolved. Anticipating the fall of Ayutthaya, he had led a group of some 500 men to the south to Chanthaburi on the east coast and from here his authority quickly reached across most of what is now central Thailand. Taaksin had influential Chinese connections through his father and under the sponsorship of this community he was crowned as the new king in 1768, just one year after the fall of Ayutthaya. One of his first moves was to establish a new capital city at Thonburi, across the Chao Praya River (แม่น้ำเจ้าพระยา) from present-day Bangkok. During the course of the following decade Taaksin outdid his Ayutthayan predecessors by not only restoring the lost territories but by adding the kingdoms of Cambodia, Lanna and Laos into his burgeoning empire.

Success had led to problems for the ruling elite for many hundreds of years and the same issues were also to herald the downfall of Taaksin. Becoming paranoid that those about him were plotting against him he even reached the extreme of imprisoning and torturing his wife and sons. It is said by some that Taaksin actually became mad and one European visitor wrote that he “passed all his time in prayer, fasting and meditation in order by these means to be able to fly through the air”. He thought of himself as a God, which did not make him popular in the Buddhist Kingdom, and eventually, in 1782, public outrage resulted in Taaksin being removed from the throne in a coup.

Much of the fighting that had been required to build the new empire had been led by Thong Duang (นายทอง"้วง), a descendant of an Ayutthayan noble family. He became the commander of Taaksin’s armies and was granted the title of Jao Praya Chakri (เจ้าพระยาจักรี). A popular and strong man, Jao Praya Chakri took over the throne and April 6th is still celebrated as a national holiday " Chakri Day (วันจักรี) " to commemorate the king’s coronation. He very quickly had Taaksin executed in a fashion that was traditionally acceptable. According to legend royal blood should not be spilled on the floor so he had Taaksin secured inside a velvet sack and hit on the back of the neck with a sandalwood club. An alternate version of events suggests that the person inside the sack may not even have been the former king but an unfortunate substitute and that Taaksin was allowed to live out his days in seclusion in the mountains.

Supported by the surviving Ayutthayan aristocracy Chakri took the title of King Ramatibodi and moved the capital city once again, over the river to Bangkok, just a small village and trading post at that time. The founding of Bangkok as the nation’s capital city in 1782 is identified with being the beginning of a new, modern, Siam and has become known as the Rattanakosin era (รัตนโกสินทร์). Ramatibodi began the development of Bangkok and with his strong ties to Ayutthaya he used this city as a model. The movement of the capital across the river also made it more easily defendable against any future Burmese incursions and return they did on several occasions. The most notable Burmese assault came in 1785 but on each occasion they were thoroughly defeated serving to bond a spirit of unity within the emerging kingdom.

With a degree of peace established King Ramatibodi set about restoring the historical and religious chronicles that had been lost at Ayutthaya. He personally involved himself in this task, in particular with the composing of the Ramakien (รามเกียรติ์), a version of the Indian Ramayana tale, which has since become the Thai national epic attaining huge popularity. Ramatibodi also worked to restore order amongst the Buddhist monkhood and confidence in it soon returned. He developed a style of government in a more modern format, retaining certain elements of the king as a deveraja but diversifying responsibilities throughout his court. His successful reign, 1782-1809, was followed by the uneventful succession of his son who took the title of King Rama II (1809-1824) and heralded in the start of the Chakri Dynasty that continues to today. Rama II is best remembered as a poet and his reign is acknowledged as enriching Thai literary heritage. It was also during Rama II’s reign that the first emergence of a threat to replace the Burmese arose; the Europeans. As an envoy of the British East India Company, John Crawford came to Siam to negotiate trade relations with the king. The remainder of this century was to see many such visits from many nations.

King Rama III (1824-1851) was the opposite of his father in many ways and actually discouraged literature whilst a great advocate of Buddhism and he completely restored Wat Po, Bangkok’s oldest temple. Having arisen in his father’s reign, foreign threats to the kingdom were to be a marked feature of the Third Reign. In 1827 Lao forces, led by King Anou (เจ้าอนุ), invaded and approached to Nakorn Rajsima (“Koraj”), within three days march of Bangkok before Rama III acted to take retribution. He forced the Lao army from the country, destroyed their capital at Vientiane saving only the Buddhist temples, and forcibly resettled large numbers of Lao in the present-day Thai province of Isaan. King Anou was brought back to Bangkok and publicly displayed in a cage. He died shortly after this, some say as a result of the humiliation others as a result of self-administered poison. He is reported to have placed a curse on the Chakri Dynasty that a king of this dynasty would never again set foot on Lao soil and since that day none have. Even when the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge was ceremoniously opened in 1994, King Bhumibol attended but ventured only as far as a sandbank in mid river, not crossing to the Lao side of the Mekhong River at all.

King Rama III also went to war in Cambodia against the growing power of the non-Buddhist Vietnamese and a peace treaty of 1845/46 left the kingdom as the major authority over Cambodian territory. As well as problems with neighboring countries an increased threat from European colonialism was identified and as early in the Third Reign as 1825 a huge iron chain was installed across the Chao Praya River in Bangkok to keep out the British navy. In 1826 Rama III signed the Burney Treaty with Britain that gave the kingdom a period of security.

During the first three reigns of the Chakri Dynasty (1782-1851) Bangkok was transformed into an island city with the river and newly constructed canals forming the boundaries. The Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha " retrieved by Rama III whilst destroying Vientiane " were both built during this period on what is still known today as Ratanakosin Island.

King Rama IV (1851-1868), known as Mongkut, had spent 27 years as a monk before succeeding his father to the throne. Court chronicles from this period state that Mongkut had been ordained as a monk to compensate for the bad omen of the death of a royal white elephant. It is believed now by historians that the young prince had been ordained at his father’s request, when he realized that his death was imminent, to help protect him from the plotting of the royal household. Whatever the reasons, Mongkut had become widely travelled within Siam and a scholar of some ability during his time in the monastery excelling at languages such as English, Latin and Pali. Indeed, studying the religious texts written in Pali he announced that monkhood ordinations in the kingdom did not follow the correct procedure and were thus invalid. He introduced a new sect known as the Thammayutika (นิกายธรรมยุติ) or ‘Order Adhering to the Dharma’ and so that they would be recognizable from other monks they wore their robes draped across both shoulders.

It was Mongkut who abandoned the vision of recreating Ayutthaya and changed the kingdoms outlook from one of introspection to one of forward thinking. His travels had brought him into contact with missionaries from many countries and he was to be more receptive to western ideas, including architecture, than his predecessors.

In 1855 British military might reappeared and, under the Bowring Treaty, Mongkut reduced trade taxes and gave British people the right to own land and live in the kingdom to placate things. His meeting with Sir John Bowring demonstrated how far Mongkut was prepared to go to ease the situation and he even offered the envoy a cigar and a glass of port from his own hand, something that would not have been entertained in the royal court of that time. During the following decade similar trade agreements were reached with many other nations, in particular France and America. By spreading his diplomatic connections Mongkut cleverly avoided coming under the influences of a single foreign nation and the kingdom remained independent whilst the remainder of South East Asia was carved up by the colonial powers of the west. Under Mongkut foreign trade boomed providing the finances for modernizing the kingdom’s infrastructure and paved roads for wheeled traffic were built for the first time to partly replace reliance on canals.

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