1238, King Si Intharathit declared full independence and established
the Sukhothai Kingdom (rising of happiness). He expanded
the kingdom's sphere of influence not only at the expense of the
Khmer Empire but by pushing deep into what is now southern Thailand,
an area then controlled by the Sirivijaya Empire. During the of
the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great(1279-1300)
the Thai army completed its conquest south as far as the present
day location of Singapore.
The Sirivijaya Empire based on the Indonesian island of Sumatra
had controlled the Malaya Peninsula and the vital trade routes between
China and India since before the 8th century.
For well over two thousand years, traders from
India and the Arab world and China had been plying the ocean trade
routes through Southeast Asia. During the Thai conquest of this
area in the 12th century; the amount of trade, and the degree of
interdependence, between India, the kingdoms of Southeast Asia,
and China and Japan was staggering. The pattern of exchange was
for the Southeast Asia kingdoms to import cotton cloth from India,
silver and copper from Japan, silk, porcelain and tea from China,
in exchange for Chinas exports of tin, teak, pepper, spices,
aromatic woods, resins, rhinoceros horn, pearls, birds nests,
deerskin and sugar. The Chinese did not navigate directly to India,
nor did Indian or Persian vessels go all the way to China. The southern
Thailand cities of Chaiya (near Surat Thani) Nakorn Si Thammarat,
Pattani and Songkhla were the halfway houses and served as huge
trade bazaars where they met and exchanged their commodities.
prevent disrupting the lucrative international trade, and to deter
uprisings and rebellions by the conquered Muslim Malaysian states,
King Ramkhamhaeng developed a policy of establishing tributary kingdoms
on the borders of his kingdom. He allowed the hereditary sultans
of the Malay states to remain in power, but he kept the Thai army
nearby, and made the sultans pay substantial annual tribute. Forcing
neighboring kingdoms to pay tribute became a major part of Thai
foreign policy, which continued well into the eighteenth century.
This policy no doubt greatly added to the national treasury but
the lack of definite boundaries over the areas controlled by Thailand
would lead to problems with both England and France during the colonial
period of Southeast Asia.
About this time Thailand started paying tribute
to the emperor in China. Some historians believe this was the price
for not being invaded by Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes who did
conquer parts of Burma, Viet Nam, and some Indonesian Islands to
the south. Many Thai historians dispute the claim that Thailand
ever paid tribute to China, they contend the kings of Thailand simply
offered elaborate gifts on a regular basis to foster trade with
the Chinese ruler. There is; however, no record of China feeling
obliged to reciprocate in exchanging gifts of friendship, and Thailand
continued paying tribute to China until being abolished during the
reign of Rama IV (1851-68).
southern Thailand, much of the international trade was controlled
by Indian and Arab merchants who had settled there centuries before.
Many had acquired great wealth and now curried favor with their
new Thai rulers. Their knowledge and experience in the shipping
and financial transactions -- necessary to conduct trade with foreign
countries -- allowed some of them to attain high positions in the
Thai government. As court ministers, these foreigners issued orders
and decrees and conducted business in the name of the king. The
Thais needed foreign experts, because up to that point they had
been mostly rice farmers and on occasion warriors, not merchants,
and did not possess the skills or technology needed to operate a
fleet of ships to the far-flung ports of Asia.
Thai control of the mineral rich west coast of
southern Thailand, including Phuket Island, remained tenuous at
first, in part because of the great distance involved, and the great
resistance from the Chao Nam people and others who inhabited the
area. Gradually, though, the Thai royal court organized the area
and like a colonial power started siphoning off the wealth through
a royal monopoly on mineral extraction and collecting a tax on the
commerce of the area. By the end of the Sukothai period royal tin
mines on and around Phuket were the leading source of revenue for
the king of Siam. It was the wealth generated from tin and trade
that financed the army that allowed Thailand to bind itself together
as a nation and to be the dominant power in the area for the next
first westerner known to visit Thailand was Marco Polomin 1288.
His journal The Travels of Marco Polo describes the wonders
of the Sukhothai Kingdom but he used the Khmer word for Thailand,
Siam. To the outside world Thailand continued to be known as The
Kingdom of Siam until 1939 when it was officially changed.
On his last return journey from China in 1294, Marco Polo is known
to have traveled by ship through the Straits of Malacca and visited
the nearby island of Sumatra. Entries in his journal mention stopping
for provisions along the mainland of present day Thailand. He did
not mention Phuket Island but it was a normal replenishment stop
during this period, and on many maps of that time Phuket was shown
as a peninsula not an island. Marco Polos journals about exotic
Asia and its treasures were to have a major impact on the history
of Asia, as a wave of explorers and traders from the west would
follow in his footsteps.
The Sukhothai kings who followed King Ramkhamhaeng
the Great were not warriors nor did they share his wisdom or vision.
They spent most of their time battling amongst themselves over succession
to the throne while events in other parts of the kingdom engulfed
them. The Sukhothai Kingdom lasted until being annexed by Ayutthaya
Many Thais consider the Sukothai era as the birth
of their nation and as a time when Thai language, culture, art,
politics, and religion all flourished and the kingdom was at peace.