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This Ancient Land of
Suvarnabhumithe Golden Peninsula :
Beginnings of Muangthai Siam , Part 2

In our issue of last month we indicated that the earliest peoples identified in the Golden Peninsula were termed Hoabinhian. A French archeologist used this word in the 1920's and it covers a time-span from around 120,000-2000 BC. Hoabinhian tools had been found in caves both in Mae Hong Sorn and Kanchanaburi Provinces and later an American archeologist added to the knowledge when cultivated seeds he'd found were carbon dated. The seeds, including pepper, betel nut and cucumber, were dated to 9,700-6,000 years BC. Were these people the very beginning of what was to become Siam? There is not a sure answer because as other tribes began a migratory trickle into the Golden Peninsula perhaps the original cave dwelling Hoabinhian were overwhelmed.

What is known is that, long before national boundaries and frontiers were established, groups of identifiable tribal peoples began to drift into the abundant river valleys of the Golden Peninsula. They had tribal names like Lawa, Mon, Khom, Kui, Malay, Bharat (Hindu), Shan, Lao and Tai. It was the latter group "Tai" who eventually came to dominate the region. The Tai tribes (and sub-tribes) came from the Chinese Province of Yunnan and the inhospitable regions of the Himalayas. They were divided minority peoples in these lands surrounded by a vast hinterland from which marauding Chinese or Mongol tribes would appear. Probably the beginning of the migration was in search of a land more kindly than that where they presently lived, however, the threat of attack from predominately Chinese certainly hastened the migration. Some western scholars suggest that the Tai tribes were pushed south in flight from Kublai Khan but this has been refuted by Chinese authors who have researched historical records. Interestingly, a Thai author contends that the Thai people were always in the Golden Peninsula region so there is some debate as to the migratory process and tracing the accurate ancestry of the Tai people.

Nevertheless, it is accepted that over many centuries Tai tribal groups moved into the areas of northern Burma, northern Thailand and northern Laos. Small sub-tribes met other small sub-tribes the Tai Ai Lao and Tai Ngai Lao were two such and joined forces for community and defensive purposes. A Chief or "King" came to the fore and established a "capital" settlement (Nakorn Pay-ngai, in this case). Another community, the Naan Jao, settled over a vast area and established their "capital" as Talee (Burma). Yet another group was the Lan Na and they seated their King at a good position on the Mekhong River and called it Chiangsaen.

As these small Kingdoms were established, the settlements developed and became permanent places of habitation. They exchanged ideas, engaged in commerce and learned about each other's cultural traditions and sometimes they fought! Tolerant alliances with other Kings were made (usually by marrying a strong son or winsome daughter into another "camp") and so the tribal group was strengthened. Similar Kingdoms were established throughout the southern stretches of the Golden Peninsula and, with the south being close to the sea, there came an exchange of sea-born commerce with the opportunity of knowledge from overseas. The great subcontinent of Bharat (The present-day India) was a source of much knowledge and beliefs.

Bharat seafarers, intent on trading and bartering goods with local Tai kings, also brought strange and very new ideas. Of course, he who has knowledge is regarded, as being "one up" on everyone else so the Tai King, being the fount of all power, would disseminate to his followers (and to other Kings in Central and Northern Suvarnabhumi "the Golden Peninsula" that which he felt would impress. Amongst these maritime arrivals from Bharat were Holy Men and Mystics; two Buddhist monks arrived in the area of what is now U-Thong District (Suphanburi Province) and Don Ta Phet, Panom-Tuan District (Kanachaburi Province). At a similar time, other Holy Men appeared with the message of the Brahmins and Hinduism. The Tais were animist in their beliefs to this time (and there still is an element of animism in Thai religious ceremonies).

The Tai King received these Holy Men and possibly thought how learned they were. He was certainly taken by their knowledge, style and bearing. As far as the Tai people were concerned, they believed what their King told them to believe (even as they adhered to their ancient animist traditions). What with Hinduism and Buddhism both appearing around the same time, there was initially some confusion as Kings and communities chopped and changed as religious teachings came to hand. Eventually the teachings of Lord Buddha were the accepted ones and this knowledge spread north through other Tai kingdoms.

Of course, when these Holy Men arrived, they only imparted their knowledge and thoughts to the King and community elders. The "ordinary" folk were ignored as being too peasant-like and without any form of divine aspiration. Thus began the stratification of the Tai people. There were those who held power and knowledge, and those whose station was much more humble as they worked the land or sailed the sea and, when necessary, soldiered for their King. The "ordinary" people were comfortable with their animist beliefs and had little contact with Holy Men from overseas.

Interestingly, when Bharat Holy Men first brought the Buddhist teachings to the Golden Peninsula, they regarded the lowly Tai as a backward and dangerous collection of tribal groups. They called them "Nagas" which meant both "serpent" and "without clothes". Thus, if and when a local man/boy learned of Lord Buddha's teachings and wished to become a monk, he first had to undergo an animist ceremony in order to cast off his "Naga"(nark) skin. This ceremony is not recorded in any sacred Buddhist teaching so is unique to Thailand and is still practiced today (called Tham Khwan Nark or Naga).

Slowly, the various tribal fiefdoms and Kingdoms of Tai began to gel and unify as they prospered commercially and consolidated territory. A strong Kingdom at Lopburi took the name "Lavo" while another Kingdom, even more powerful, centred at Suphanburi, used the title "Siam".

To the north, amid the mountains and rolling hills bisected by the lush valleys of the River Mekhong and River Ping, the people called Yonok Chiangsaen and Ngern-Yaang Chiangsaen established the settlement of Chiangsaen. There was ongoing territorial unrest amongst the several mini-Kingdoms as the leaders jockeyed for power and gain. These were the Lan Na peoples and a decisive great King was yet to emerge. From Chiangsaen the sub-groups spread to establish Chiang Rai, Lumpoon or Lamphun (the Kingdom of Hariphunchai) and Chiang Mai (the ancient city of Chiang Mai is the oldest, continuously inhabited, site in Thailand. It has been inhabited for over 700 years). Further south yet another group had settled and built the city of Sukothai. All of these cities were walled and moated so that the King could better defend his base. In the fullness of time, mini-Kingdoms combined their territories to form larger, more powerful units. This was done by strategic alliances (the Three Kings of Chiang Mai) but more often by conquest. Eventually, the entire north came to be known as the Kingdom of Lan Na under the powerful leadership of King Mengrai.

Such kingdoms were largely autonomous (and remained so for centuries) but fell into decline as power bases and commercial interests shifted. Much to the south, the Lavo and Siam people put aside their differences (although the lesser group retained some independence) and combined to form the Kingdom of Siam with its capital city at Ayutthaya. The Lavos of Lopburi became a vassal state of Ayutthaya and paid tribute to the King. The Kingdom of Sukothai succumbed to Siamese influence, as did the northern Kingdom of Lanna. All eventually came under the sway of the King of Siam and his great city of Ayutthaya.

Boundaries, frontiers and territories would continue to shift and change hands for centuries to follow. Battle would lead to other battles as the influence of widespread Kingdoms (Khom & Mon for example) competed with each other for power and people. The Kingdom of Siam was at the heart of such flux and would remain so for a very long time. Muangthai Siam should mean that the Nation of Thai people with the name of Siam which was given by foreigners had been born!

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