The History of Siam, written before the democratic revolution of 1932 by a presumably British expat, has momentarily satisfied my curiosity about the pre-modern Siam. The account takes you through the disputatious and war-ridden history of the area, starting in detail around the 12th century. I was intrigued by the author’s claim that Kublai Khan’s campaigns in southern China provided the essential basis for the “Tai” people to migrate south and establish a sovereign nation. “Tai”, incidentally, means freedom. Following are the accounts of the legendary Sukothai kings and the founding of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
It is amazing to consider the extent of bloodshed occuring on this very Chiang Mai soil in the last 700 years. In its first 250 years, before the first significant invasions by the Burmese, Chiang Mai resisted many attacks from the southern Siamese kingdoms and remained fiercely independent. “Thailand” is a very modern and historically recent concept. True to what I have heard my northern Thai contemporaries say, Lanna was literally its own kingdom with its own distinct culture and traditions. It is only in the last couple hundred years that Lanna capitulated to the southern Siamese and allowed itself to be identified witha larger nation-construct, although its assorted cities were occupied by the Burmese for at least a couple hundred years.
Reading through the political history of Siam is an observation of a royalty in constant flux. A benevolent, just king is followed by a vain, morally reprehensible one and times of wealth and well-being are promptly interrupted by shameless in-fighting and seemingly casual fratricide–all for the temperamental ring of power. Siamese history, besides the consistent presence of unrelenting appetites for dominion, is also charmingly decorated with royal white elephants, provincial magic and superstition and fascinating intrigues involving revered Buddhist relics.
Tantalizing visions of Siam rise from these historical texts, depicting a people whose nature is at once peculiar and resilient, obstinate and facetious, affected in equal parts by jealousy and nobility. Its countless heroes are matched in number only by its countless tyrants and scapegoats. Of both the Siamese and the Lanna Thais it can be said, however, that they were essentially resourceful and used their environment creatively as a means to buttress their provinces, all while showing a knack for enacting equitable laws and living conditions for common folk, laws which themselves originate from that universal vein of justice which, it can be said, is the true life-support of all noble monarchies.
The same people were, however, relentlessly plagued by military conflicts with the Burmese and, to a lesser extent, the Cambodians, over whom specifically they enjoyed control. Such an atmosphere of conflict will inevitably breed greed, venality, worldly ambition and betrayal, as the repeated absconding of valuable Buddhist relics on either side illustrates. Still, we can admire the self-possessed determination of the Siamese people through time, evidenced most conspicuously in the characters of King Nresuan and King Taksin, both of whom gained national independence from the Burmese through a combination of fearlessness and impeccable military strategy.
Most fascinating to consider, however, are the early interactions between the Thais and the enterprising Europeans whose ships carried them into Asian waters. Here we can imagine, taking a respectable amount of liberties, the curious scenes generated between 16th century Dutch traders and the local Thai merchants and royalty of Ayuthaya–not to mention the ambitious Portuguese; the proselytizing French; the opportunistic British. Imagine the volume of such priceless pre-modern, intercultural encounters and their resultant stories, all lost to the sands of time!
The Europeans must have been astonished by this developed Asian kingdom, still in its infancy but nonetheless garbed in pride and pomp, and confounded by the strange customs and even stranger tongue. Such an epic confrontation between pre-industrial cultures in Siam deserves a cinematic interpretation (The King and I notwithstanding). How scintillating to consider English words on the tongue of a 16th-century Thai person, or the lilting tones of Thai on the tongue of a 16th-century European! We can imagine that each side had its best interpreters, those endowed with the gift of language sufficiently enough to overcome the obstacles to being bilingual at such a primitive, pre-Google stage of intercultural interaction.
It appears as though the Dutch were the most successful in winning the confidence of the Siamese, as the business of their VOC was allowed to flourish for a long time, almost without a hiccup. The Portuguese and French, who both enjoyed a strong alliance with Siamese kings for some time, eventually fell out of favor and were even, in the latter’s case, persecuted in large numbers. The French approach to Siam ultimately proved offensive and was exacerbated by the volatility of certain petulant Ayuthaya kings (bringing to mind the deranged extremes of Nebuchadnezzar).
It is, however, interesting to note that at the height of the Franco-Siamese friendship, an ill-fated ship was dispatched from Siam bearing many French and Siamese royal ambassadors along with numberless gifts for King Louis which included, amazingly, several baby rhinos and elephants. This odd nautical caravan never made it to France, sadly, as the ship suffered a wreck off the coast of Madagascar which drowned all of its passengers. In retrospect it appears an ominous portent for Franco-Siamese relations–the two would engage in military conflict during World War II, resulting in a high French casualty rate and the ceding of territories held by French colonists in Cambodia back to Thailand.
All in all, it is the vision of a pure, incipient Siam unexposed to the Western world that still haunts my imagination. As Chiang Mai and its surrounding provinces become increasingly industrialized, it is a prized vision that seems more and more its own white elephant, slipping forever deeper into the jungles of obscurity.