|Fig.1: Stuff like this was a prime target for those Europeans and their label makers.
The Ayutthaya kingdom began with a prince who had the awesome name of U-Thong. U-Thong married into the royal family of Sukhothai in the center of present-day Thailand, and decided to move his court south and build a brand new city around 1350. Sources argue as to why he did this; some say there was a plague ravaging Sukhothai, others say he wanted a spot closer to the sea which would better facilitate trade, while a special few claim that U-Thong just wanted to show off his new swimwear off at the nearby beach. Regardless, he founded his city and named it "Ayutthaya," which meant "the Invincible City" (I bet $20 that it gets destroyed eventually). U-Thong was renamed King Ramathibodi, but I prefer to keep calling him U-Thong for obvious reasons (it keeps my friend Sisqó happy). U-Thong was an able ruler, creating many just laws, boosting his kingdom's economy through trade with the Chinese, and defending his territory against those Wat-crazy folks from Angkor. When U-Thong died in 1369 from lack of circulation in his private parts, Ayutthaya was well on its way to becoming the center of power of its own parts.
|Fig.2: "Mom! Bagan keeps saying he's not touching me
when he's very nearly touching me!"
A possible explanation to Ayutthaya's success is the different way in which they viewed their king. While other Southeast Asian peoples gave the utmost respect to their ruler and dared not speak ill of his ability to govern, wage war, or pick up that 7-10 split, the Ayutthayans took it an extra step by claiming that their monarch was the representative of the gods. The region practiced a mix of Hinduism and Buddhism, which, in Ayutthaya's case, went together better than chicken nuggets and a vanilla milkshake (trust me, that's an excellent combination). The king was simultaneously a manifestation of the Hindu god Vishnu, as well as a bodhisattva, a being which achieves the highest level of enlightenment on par with the Buddha. In his people's minds, the world revolved around the king, who made sure everything ran smoothly and successfully (in other words, he was the Peyton Manning of the offense that is life). Thus, historians have argued that Ayutthaya's initial success came from the belief that the king was the ultimate defender of the people, giving the citizenry the confidence to expand their influence by means of conquest, as well as finally rev up the courage ask that girl out. Unfortunately, this system often collapsed whenever a king died, as many sons and uncles and third-cousins-twice-removed would step up to claim that they were the true Avatar of Vishnu; thus, Ayutthaya's history was bloodied with several palace coups that would make even the Romans feel embarrassed for them.
But it wasn't all about bloody and repressive politics in Ayutthaya; let's not forget about the bloody and repressive social structure lived out by the citizenry! A highly stratified hierarchy existed that ranked somewhere between Europe's feudalism and India's caste system on the "How much can we screw over the peasants?" scale of socioeconomic mobility. This was somewhat alleviated in 1518 by King Ramathibodi II's introduction of the corvée system. Here, the majority of the common people were labeled as phrai, and overseen by a government official or nobleman called a nai. For a specified period of a year (typically three to six months), the spry phrai worked for their sly nai for a payment of nigh, whether their occupation included working with dye, growing rye, fishing to fry, or staring at the sky. This was seen as the phrai's obligation to the government, and in turn did not need to pay taxes (making just death and rising cable bills as certainties in life). Phrai could also be called to die in service to the Thai, comprising the majority of the army (ar-mi?). While it was eventually seen as a form of cruel slavery, the corvée system helped Ayutthaya continue to have economic and military success, forcing me to continue to write this history (hmm, maybe it wasn't a good thing after all).
|Fig.3: Ayutthayan hats often doubled as huge
board game pieces.
Of course, there were some people who didn't like all the changes that were going on. The conservative nobles hated being replaced by these European intruders, the Buddhist clergy feared the increasing presence of Christianity among the people, and the elderly citizens disliked the introduction of French foods at their family-style buffets. In 1688, when Narai was on his deathbed and European influence was at its height, some saw it was the perfect time to strike. Phetracha, a military general, led a revolution against the throne, killing Narai's heirs (who had previously converted to Christianity), beheading Constantine Phaulkon while he was at the bar, and took the throne away from the dying king. He proceeded to kick all the Europeans out of the country, mostly by kicking a soccer ball towards other Southeast Asian kingdoms and watching them mindlessly chase after it. While Ayutthaya didn't isolate themselves on the level of Tokugawa Japan during this time, they kept their borders shut to everything accept the occasional trade of goods, and preferred the company of the Chinese (yeah, cause they totally just mind their own business).
|Fig.4: People just don't war like
they used to.
The Thais would quickly bounce back, however. An Ayutthayan general named Taksin took back control of the region and established a new city further south, which would eventually become the giggle-inducing capital of Bangkok. A continuation of foreign policies from Ayutthaya days ensured that Thailand would remain independent while the Dutch, English, and French would take over lands to the south, west, and east of them. This allowed for an increasingly-modernized nation to develop with the economic and social wherewithal that many outsiders would be very willing to get to know them (but not on a colonial level). The legacy of Ayutthaya continues in Thailand today, and not just because its ruins are one of the most visited tourist sites in the country, with folks coming from all over to check out the temples (fig.1) and other interesting sights (fig.5).
|Fig.5: I believe this Buddhist statue enclosed within tree roots at Ayutthaya
qualifies as "creepy enough" to suffice as my Halloween tie-in for this post.