A Potted History

IMG_7756OK, this blog has nothing whatsoever to do with plants, but I thought that picture was kind of great, so why not put it in?

I decided to take a long overdue trip to the National Museum, Bangkok. For a comparison trip, so to speak, with the Museum Nasionale, Jakarta (see previous blog). The result is a potted history of Thailand.

good, eh? No? Ah, well, never mind. Excruciating puns aside…

First off, a check of some relevant websites about the place told me it was a 40-50Baht entrance fee. Seems there’s been a massive inflation event as it was actually 200Baht. To be fair this site got it right – http://www.museumvolunteersbkk.net/html/museum.html – but there’s always that panicked moment of checking your wallet for the increased funds when you’ve cycled to the place. Discovering 300Baht (enough for a nam yen – cold water – as well) set my racing heart back into its proper arrhythmia and I sauntered into the first of the buildings along with more Western farang than I’ve seen to date. First comparative impression? It was like the Museum Nasionale’s original design. Essentially, a motley collection of fusty statues, pottery, some textiles, lacquered word work, 90s exhibits (heavy on the models – like going into a War Games shop), VDU and button inspired technology, and gold/silver/bronze artifacts. It needs an update, to be honest. That said, there’s a nostalgia about the place, a dusty nook-and-cranny feel that’s patiently encouraging to all-comers if you’re there to enjoy history, not just race round it like an IKEA store.

There’s plenty to see and say about the contents so there may be more than one blog. As I said, I’ll start with a potted history of the country as given in the museum. For those of you who aren’t interested, click away


still here? Great. Right then., off we go. IMG_7732

It all seems to have begun with the Srivijaya culture from around the C8th-C13th (“C” meaning Century A.D.); a place that rose to some pre-eminence through trade. Merchants from India, Arabia, China, Java and Malay wared their forest, herb and spice goods through the place. The state practiced the Mahayana Buddhism, – evidence is found in clay votive tablets – the architecture possessed a characteristic pagoda or chedi style from Java.

At the same time the Lopburi culture flourished. With strong roots in the Khmer (modern Cambodia) there was a shift to Brahmanism. Places like Phanom Rung and Muang Tam sprang up, the influence of this culture peaking in the C13th under King Jayavarmam VII when the state notably shifted from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism.

There is evidence in foreign documents that a group of people settled upper Thailand. They were called alternatively the Sayam, Siam, Siam-Kuk, or even Sian. The south was inhabited by groups of Lohu people. Both communities founded cities along the Yom and Chao Phraya rivers. The Yom city was Sukhothai; the Chao Phraya was Ayutthaya. (see previous blog). Meanwhile the Suphannaphum State formed, comprising group on the west of the Chao Phraya valley, a stem of the prevailing Dvaravati culture. The three cities of this state – Phraek Si Racha, Ratchaburi and Phetchaburi controlled most of the trade routes between the central plains an the southern peninsula. I have to say here that reading all this in the Museum gave a lot of meaning to road names in Bangkok. We’re one block away from Phetchaburi road, Rachadamri is not far either.

It was these two regions – Lopburi and Suphannaphum – who fought for supremacy before the advent of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya.

Swept up into the Kingdom of Ayutthaya was the Nakhon Si Thammarat State (in south Siam). Previously co-existing and trading with the Kingdom of Sukhothai, it merged with Ayutthaya in the C15th.

A word on Sukhothai – back in the C13th two Thai leaders – Pho Khun Pha Muang and Pho Khan Bang Klung Hao founded the city in the Yom Valley (as I mentioned above). The latter was crowned the first king, presiding over his capital and two other cities – Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet. Territorial gain was swift  over the next hundred years; and with this, the city expanded from its rectangular (1400m x 1810m) footprint into a place with triple moat defences, irrigation, canals, reservoirs. Governance altered from a tribal leader administration to an absolute monarchy under King Li Thai.

Ayutthaya itself (a previous blog gives more details) was founded on the central plain near he Chao Phraya. Near Wat Phananchoeng (which predates the city by 26 years) it was founded by King U-Thong resplendent with royal palace and three throne halls – Phaithun, Phaichayon and Aisawan. An eastern moat with dug to connect the Lopburi river and Chao Phraya. By the C15th, the Kingdoms of Sukhothai and Suphanburi were under its control. It was here that eventually Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, British and French emissaries, traders, then settlers came. The excellent book, Venice of the East, gives a very readable history of Ayutthaya. I reviewed it here.

IMG_7715As I wandered round the Museum I discovered (as I alluded to earlier) many models. Some has had a chance to practice figurine making. It kind of reminded of “Night in the Museum” – the Ben Stiller movies – had me wondering what those would be like if they came to life. Anyway, one was of the heroic Prince Naresuan who was a dominant Thai figure ni their wars with Burma. One feat is immortalized in clay dating to 1586 when he tried to climb a stockade with a sabre in his mouth to assault his enemy. The royal sabre used that evening was called Phra Saeng Sap Khap Khai (literally translated as: sabre held in his mouth while climbing the stockade).

Moving on  I found a section on the history of France with Siam. It educated me that during the reign of King Narai envoys from the court of Louis XIV arrived in 1673 and 1683. The French East India Company arrived in 1680 and, in return, a Siamese delegation arrived in Paris in 1686. At the time Constantine Phaulkon, a Greek “adventurer” came to the Siamese court, garnering a lot of influence. An influence that came to an abrupt end when King Narai’s reign did.

Lastly…for this blog at any rate…I learned about King Taksin. In October 1767, this King moved a war fleet of over 100 ships with 5000+ men towards Thon Buri. At the time the city (on the western bank of the Chao Phraya opposite Bangkok) was under the control of Burma. He sacked it, moved against Ayutthaya and retook the city. The fight there almost irrevocably destroyed the city so Taksin made his capital Thon Buri. The city used to be a major fort, had good control of trade routes (national and international), was easily defensible and close to the old capital. Toward the end of his reign a series of riots in Thon Buri came to the attention of a commander, Somdet Chao Phraya Maha Kasatsuk who was waging war with the Khmer. Offered the throne in 1782 after he had quelled the riots he moved the capital from the east bank to the west and renamed the capital:

Krungthep Mahanakhon Bowonrattanakosin Mahinthrayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharat Ratchathaniburirom Udomrratchaniwet Mahasathan Amonphiman Awatansathit Sakkathatiya Witsanukamprasit.

Or…Bangkok as we all know it.

So…the first part of my trip around the Museum of Bangkok comes to an end. One building down, five to go…. Here’s some photos of what I had seen so far, it includes a glut of historical stuff I’ve not mentioned so far…by the way, the rifle you’ll see in the slideshow – it was given by one of the US Presidents (didn’t say which one) as a gift.


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Is this what diplomacy is all about?



Categories: Bangkok, Thailand

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