“What is Thailand? I am not from Thailand, I am from Siam!” These words were shouted aloud amidst of a conversation about Thailand’s history by a dear friend of mine. A really eye-opening conversation.
We sat in the shades of the trees in a local coffee house in Ko Lipe, sipping our home made Chrysanthemum drinks. As I tasted all the juices lady Nu made in her coffee house, I received a lesson of Thai history.
“You see,” he continued, “Thailand has changed its name only in the 40’s. Thailand means land of the free, we were never colonised.” True story, Thailand has always been able to resist the western and Japanese colonists, unlike other Southeast Asian countries. Siam changed its name to Thailand in 1939 under fascist leader Phibun out of pride and nationalism to underline its colonial resistance, after which the country was named Siam again after World War II. In 1949, Siam was renamed Thailand for the second time.
Could it be because of this that the “Land of the Free” is so open to tourism? In fact, the Thai have never been as suspicious about tourists as other Asian countries have been. All I hope is that this will not work against them: could the absence of a colonisation trauma lead to a faster loss of traditions? Paradoxically, it seems as if other Asian countries are more careful in preserving their essence because of the past invasions they went through.
Siam, my dear friend likes to say he comes from Siam instead of Thailand. Well, what about Siam? Siam was born under the Chakri dynasty (still ruling today) in 1782 together with the capital of Bangkok. It didn’t came out of nowhere. Before Siam, the Thai people had known various kingdoms: there was the Sukhotai Kingdom in the 13th century, a century later incorporated in the Ayutthaya Kingdom lasting more than 400 years. Eventually, the Birmese succeeded in burning down Ayutthaya in 1767 and Thonburi became the new capital. The Thonburi Kingdom lasted until King Rama I of the Chakri dynasty became the ruler and moved the capital to a little village of the other side of the Chao Phraya river: Bangkok.
I travelled through time, imagining battles and victories and picturing colourful scenes of the rise and fall of various kingdoms as my friend spoke on and on. A question drew me back to reality. “Ayutthaya, have you been there? Have you seen it?” No, I did not see it. “When you go back to Bangkok, go see Ayutthaya.” He added: “Ayutthaya for Thai people is what Rome is for the West!”
And so I did. I came back to Bangkok and took a day to visit the old capital of the Thai people. At the Wat Phra Maha That, or “Monastery of the Great Relic”, I stood eye in eye with the ruins left behind by the Birmese. It used to be one of the most important monasteries of the Ayutthaya kingdom (source), but the Birmese had no mercy. Those battle stories I was told, finally took shape in my mind: the ruins speak more than eloquently about the impact of this tragedy. Especially the headless Buddhas are impressive.