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South East Asia



By Alex Brown



Before the 13th century, the area known today as Thailand consisted of isolated small hill and plain communities. By the 13th century, attempts were made at state-building by a community who collectively called themselves Tais (free people) across N.E. Myannmar, Central & Northern Thailand, and Laos. Other communities that form today's Tais include Lao peoples, the Shans of Burma, Black, Red and White Tais of Lao and N. Vietnam, and the Lu of Yunnan, China.


The communities were mainly rice farmers clustered in muang, villages under a chieftain. As they moved downwards towards the fertile central plains, they networked together by trade, marriage and religion which was Theravada Buddhism which accommodated itself to Tai folk traditions and animist beliefs.


The principal blueprint for Tai nation building was Angkor, the great Cambodian kingdom that was adapted from Indian/Brahmanical thought, particularly the concept of deveraj or divine kingship.


The first Tai kingdom was Sukhotai which was ruled by King Ramkamheng (c.1279-1298) who ruled with fairness and openness, providing absolute freedom for his people. `There is fish in the water, rice in the field ...' He also created the Thai script which was inspired by Sanscrit.


After Ramkamheng's death, Sukhothai dwindled in significance. Thailand's second kingdom was founded by U Thong, thought to be a wealthy Chinese merchant in Ayuthaya around 1351. This kingdom lasted till 1757. This was probably an early example of Thai society's readiness to absorb Chinese and other foreigners into their society.


Ayuthaya prospered because of its strategic position, being new the Chaophraya River providing direct access to the sea. It was also located in the centre of the fertile central plains. There was much government and social control - corvee labour became compulsory for all male citizens. Subsequent rulers also developed social orders called sakdina and sangha which still persist in today's Thai society.


Ayuthaya's strong military strength enabled it to wage wars as far north as Chiengmai  (also known as the kingdom of Lan Na), Cambodia and the states of  peninsula Malaya. Burma remains the greatest antagonist of Ayuthaya. After several sieges by the Burmese, the city was finally razed to the ground in 1767 and along with it went thousands of people and potable wealth.


Two military leaders stood out during this time of crisis - Chaophraya Chakri & Taksin. The former was responsible for capturing Vientiane (capital of Laos) and bringing back the emerald Buddha, the most potent image of Thailand. The latter rallied an army and founded a new capital at Thonburi. However, his subsequent tyranny saw him executed by the people. The throne was naturally given to Chaophraya Chakri who is first in the line of the Chakri dynasty which has lasted till today (9th).


All the kings of the Chakri dynasty were known as Rama 1 - Rama 9 who is today's King Adulyadej Bhumiphol. King Rama 1 reconstituted Thailand, built Bangkok, reformed the sangha, produced new Buddhist texts and supported the arts including a comprehensive translation of the 700-hour Indian epic Ramayana which pervades Thai society till today.


King Rama 1V (also known as King Mongkut) who ruled from 1851 - 1868, saw the advantages of reorienting Thailand to the West and schooled his courts on Western languages, science, military organisation and technology.


During the reign of King Rama V (also known as King Chulalongkorn) during the next few decades saw Western pressure namely from the French (Cambodia & Vietnam), Dutch (Indonesia) & British (India, Burma and Malaya). Thailand was never colonised because of its diplomacy although it lost some territory along the way e.g. part of today's Laos, and Northern Malaya. This shortfall in the form of treaties to head off Anglo-French confrontation in South East Asia however guaranteed the security of the Thai kingdom. King Chulalongkorn modernised Thailand  by internationalising its outlook - slavery and corvee labour were abolished.


Subsequent Thai Kings continued King Rama V's legacy. In 1932, Thailand became a constitutional monarchy during the reign of King Rama V111 (also known as King Ananda) after a bloodless coup by the military. This was also the period of the Great depression. Thailand has since been controlled by strong military generals until  May 17, 1992 when  hundreds of political protesters were gunned down by the military. This event diminished the likelihood of further direct military intervention in Thai government.


2.0 Modern Thailand


Military influence still remains strong in the provinces although the King is very highly revered by the people. The monarchy only intervenes during crises. Buddhism remains the traditional source of social stability in Thailand. The politicians understand this very well. Modern education however has contributed to the diversification of attitudes towards religion like most industrialised societies.


Thailand is today experiencing unprecedented economic growth (8.2 % for 1995). The provinces however remain poor especially in the north-east (Issarn). Poor harvest sees hoards of people from the provinces going to the big cities, and abroad for work. 40%  of Thais live in Bangkok, straining the infrastructure. With more wealth, there are more vehicles on the road. Bangkok's infamous traffic jams are now being  seriously tackled with the building of more superhighways and the mass-rapid rail system. The King has already intervened in this area. The Thais are basically optimistic people and amidst many internal problems the population has to grapple with everyday life. The Thais remain fiercely nationalistic.





1.      AMARAVATI - A site in South-eastern India where a Buddhist school of art developed from about 2nd - 4th century AD.


2.      ANGKOR VAT (WAT) - The most famous Khmer monument in Cambodia built by King Suryavarman II and dedicated to Vishnu in the first half of the 12th century AD.


3.      ASOKA - The great Indian emperor, a great patron of Buddhism (268 - 232 BC)


4.      BENCHARONG - A pentrachromatic (5-coloured) ware ordered from China after Thai designs, very popular during the 18th - 19th century.


5.      BODHISATTVA - Saints in Mahayana Buddhism who are the saviour of the Mahayanists. In Theravada Buddhism this name means the future Buddha, usually in his previous  incarnations.


6.      BRAHMA - One of the Hindu gods. He has four faces and mounts on a hamsa (wild goose). He is reckoned as the creator of the world.


7.      BRAHMIN - A Hindu priest.


8.      CANDI - An Indonesian world preceding the name of a monument  It is believed that these monuments contain the ashes of the dead.


9.      CHAM - An Indonesian race that founded an Indianised kingdom of Champa which is located in South Vietnam.


10.    CHEDI - In Thailand, it signifies a solid monument to enshrining the relics of Buddha or his disciples. Same meaning as stupa.


11.    FUNAN - According to Chinese chronicles, it was the first known kingdom of South East Asia from 1st - 6th century AD.


12.    GANESA - The elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom & success.


13.    GARUDA - The king of birds and the mount of Vishnu, one of the greatest Hindu gods.


14.    GUPTA - The name of a powerful dynasty in northern India (320-470 AD).


15.    HAMSA - A wild goose, mount of Brahma.


16.    HINDUISM - An Indian religion that developed from Brahmanism. It consists of three gods (Trimurti) namely Brahma, Siva and Vishnu.


17.    JATAKA - Previous lives of the Buddha, usually 55o in number of which the last ten are the most important.


18.    KHMER - An ancient Cambodian race, probably ancestors of today's Cambodians (Kampucheans).


19.    KRISHNA - One of the incarnations of Vishnu.


20.    LOPBURI - An important town in central Thailand from the Dvaravati period (7th -11th century AD). Also known as  or Lavapura.


21.    MAHAYANA BUDDHISM - Buddhism that incorporates many aspects of Brahmanism.


22.    MON - A race in southern Burma who lived in central Thailand between 7th - 11th century AD.


23.     NAGA - King of serpents, enemy of garuda.


24.    PALA - A Buddhist dynasty of southeastern India (6th - 8th century AD).


25.    PRAENG - A brush-like structure in Thailand in imitation of a Khmer tower.


26.    SALIENDRA - A Mahayana Buddhist dynasty that ruled central Java  from the end of the 8th century to the middle of the 9th century AD after which they shifted to Sumatra where they ruled the kingdom of Srivijaya to the end of the 13th century.


27.    SANGKALOK (Sawankalok) - A glazed stoneware, an imitation of Chinese ceramic, especially the celadon type fabricated in Sukhothai between 3rd - 1st century AD.


28.    SIVA - One of the greatest Hindu gods.


29.    SRIVIJAYA - A South east Asian kingdom between late 7th century to the end of 13th  century centred around Palembang.


30.    STUPA - See Chedi.


31.    THERAVADA BUDDHISM - The traditional Pali heritage of early Buddhism. Sometimes called Hinayana and is considered to be the authentic doctrine.


32.    VEDA (adj. VEDIC) - Text of the Vedic religion of the Aryans.



3.0    ART IN THAILAND  :  A Brief History


Art in Thailand is mainly religious Art. There are two mains periods in Thai Art : The first period covers the time before Thai political domination of the country; the second period occurred after the epoch.


3.1    First Period


This period can be further sub-divided into 5 groups namely :



        Significant finds : Roman bronze lamp, Indian Buddha images from various Indian periods  ranging from 2nd - 8th century AD.


2.      DVARAVATI (6th or 7th - 11th century AD)

         Area : Central Thailand, probably around Nakhon Pathom.

         Significant finds : Mon stone inscriptions, bronze and stone Buddha images of Gupta or post Gupta periods with influences of Amaravati & Pala styles, stone Wheels of the Law, figures of deer, brick monuments (stupas) and stone votive tablets.


3.      ANCIENT HINDU IMAGES (7th - 9th century AD)

         Area : Assorted including Surathani, Pachinburi, Petchabun & Ubon  Rachathani.

         Significant finds : Stone Hindu images including that of Vishnu, Krishna and Sivalinga.


4.      SRIVIJAYA (8th - 13th century AD)

         Area : Malay peninsula at the South of Thailand, probably centred around Palembang.

          Significant finds : Mainly Mahayana Buddhist stone & bronze Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,  stone sanctuary.


5.      LOPBURI OR KHMER ART IN THAILAND  (7th - 14th century AD)

         Area : Central, eastern & north-eastern Thailand.

        Significant finds : Khmer-styled antiquities, sculpture and architecture. The objects are mainly stone or cast in bronze, belonging to the Mahayana school. Stone Hindu and  Buddhist shrines were also found.


3.2    Second Period


The second period is classified under five artistic styles namely :


1.  CHIENGSAEN OR NORTHERN THAI STYLE (11th - 18th century AD)

Area : Northern Thailand, also called Lan Na.

Significant finds : Theravada Buddha images, Metal votive tablets, and Sangkalok ceramics. In architecture there were Singhalese-styled stupas.


2.  SUKHOTHAI (late 13th - early 15th century AD)

Area : Central Thailand, Sukhothai, Pitsunalok, Si Satchanalai.

This period is often described as the golden age of Thai art. Classical proportions of Buddha images were established during this period. Often, the images were smiling because this was a happy period for the Thais. Sawanlok (Sawankhalok) glazed stoneware was popular and extensively fabricated in Chengmai. Many chedis were built as a form of merit-making. They followed several styles namely Singhalese and Srivijayan.


3.  U-TONG STYLE (app. 12th - 15th century AD)

Area : Central Thailand.

U-Tong art was considered composite art. There are basically 3 groups namely Dvaravati, Khmer, Lopburi/Sukhothai. The prototype of the Thai `praeng' is believed to have originated during this period.


4.  AYUDHYA style (mid 14th - mid 18th century AD)

Area : Ayudhaya, Nakhon Pathom, Central Thailand.

Buddha images were also extensivelt made - the crowned version was popular then. Some were made of sandstone which became fashionable then. Late Ayudhaya paintings showed representations of trees, mountains and water which were Chinese-influenced. Cabinetry simulated architecture especially doors. The most popular ceramic ware was `bencharong', a five-coloured porcelain imported from China according to Thai design. The `praeng' tower became very popular.


5.  BANGKOK STYLE (late 18th - early 20th century AD)

Area : Thonburi, Bangkok

King Rama I (1782-1809) made few Buddha statues during his rein. Instead he commanded 1200 stucco Buddha statues to be brought from the war-torn north. It was only  35 years ago that  the stucco started flaking off revealing beautiful bronze work.

Paintings of this period were religious in theme and executed in many colours with gold. They had no perspective and murals had little or no sequence in revelation.

Minor arts include cabinets and boxes decorated with gold or black lacquer. Some had mother-of pearl inlay. Classical dance reached its zenith and the Ramakien flourished. With western influence, Thai houses which were traditionally constructed of timber gave way to brick buildings. But timber houses are now enjoying a revival.




1.  A deep  understanding of the various periods and styles can only be acquired through extensive personal scholastic study. This module will therefore only attempt to give you an idea of the style and influence of the objects you see. Precise archaeological identification at most can only be generalised at this stage. The `style' of a culture must therefore be taken to mean expressions that a product of the landscape, religion and history.


2. Thailand is influenced greatly by Hindu-Buddhism. Ethnic Thai has also been influenced by the cultures of China, India, Cambodia, Malaya and others.


3. After the 18th century, westernisation through trade opened up new areas of expressions, often with much western influence in terms of dressing, architecture and domestic crafts. Roads replaced canals, brick houses replaced timber houses and these have had great impact on the way people live.


4. In spite of modernisation and westernisation, what is seen outwardly as western it is spiritually very Thai because it responds to the local landscape, climate and social demands in a very Thai way.


5. Thai style is easier recognised than analysed because of its variations, restraints, exuberance; all making its presence felt in a very subtle way.



5.0    General Characteristics


5.1    Thai Architecture


         1.  Chedis and Praeng towers (Khmer influence)

         2.  Multi-tiered roofs in 3 colours, ending in finials called chofahs. 

         3.  Carved gables in wood, some showing strong Chinese-inspired design especially in the north.

         4. Stilt houses on canals which still forms the lifeline of most rural Thailand. Makara arches of Hindu origins.

         5.  Barred windows of Khmer origin.


5.2    Thai Furniture


         1.  Low and heavily-carved traditional furniture some with western detailing.

         2.  Surface embellishments of gold on black lacquer especially from the Ayuthaya period.  Note tapering of form                        which is quite popular.

         3.  Guilding on panels, chairs and pulpits.

         4.  Coloured panels on cabinet doors showing Chinese influence.


5.3    Thai Utensils and Pottery


         1.  Enamelled teapots.

         2.  Bencharong or five-coloured porcelain from China.

         3.  Nielloware.

         4.  Sawankhalok pottery.

         5.  Baked clay and stoneware pots.

         6.  Pre-historic pottery from Ban Chiang period.

         7.  Celadonware


5.4    Thai Rural Crafts


Basketry and weaving are extensive in rural Thailand. They form a very important part of Thai rural life as they are made not for decoration but for utility. The forest and fields are the source of raw materials. Reed baskets serve many purposes and they include : carrying chicken, keeping newly caught fish, keeping glutinous rice (kow-niow *), serving rice, storing rice, etc. Hats are also made from reeds.


(*) Kow niow forms the staple diet for most rice farmers because it keeps them full throughout the day without having to go back home for meals while working in the rice field which can be huge.


5.5    Thai Textiles


The Thai textile industry must essentially start with Thai silk. This forms an enormous export industry which until 40 years ago was a cottage industry until a retired American naval officer called Jim Thompson started marketing this exotic material to the west and the rest of the world.


Cotton and silk weaving flourish throughout Thailand with patterns varying from geometry to animals to fauna.


Textiles are woven for numerous purposes e.g. Phasins and Sarongs (wraparound skirts), Pachong Kabens (trouser wraparounds), pillow covers, sashes and scarves.


5.6    Thai Lacquer-ware


Applied mainly on furniture and door panels and is usually gold on black. The images can be of people, places and situations.


5.7    Thai Silverware


Mainly made into vessels for royal ceremonies, betel nuts, etc. which were objects of great value and prestige. Silver jewellery is popular with tribal communities too.




Thai theatre is beautifully expressed in their masks and costumes.


The most famous of Thai drama is the KHON or masked drama, beautifully expressed in the Ramakien. which is an allegory of good over evil. This classical dance form was popular in the royal courts of Ayuthaya.


When KHON moved out of the courts, it was called LAKHON. Masks are worn by only non-human characters. Movements were more fluid and graceful.


NANG YAI is the Thai version of Wayang Kulit (Shadow play) which originated in Java during the 8 - 13th century. There are a few variations to this form e.g.


NAM RANG where the shadow puppets are painted for daytime performance.


HUM or marionettes were manipulated from below with concealed strings.



7.0    MUSIC


The traditional Thai orchestra is called PIPHAT.

Central to this orchestra is a wind instrument called the PINAI (equivalent to the western Oboe or Clarinet).It defines the melody.

Percussion components include rhythmic drums, gongs and cymbals which define the pace and rhythmic form of the music.

A beautiful sounding xylophone called RANARD EK produces a nice mellow tone from its bamboo keys. There are tonal variations to this instrument.





The Thais are very conscious of their religion in their social life. Mythology is often expressed in decorations, be it their vehicles, boats or motor tricycles.


SPIRIT HOUSES. The Thais believe that on every piece of land there lives a spirit. Thus when a house is built on that land, a home must be found for that spirit. Thus we see spirit houses all over Thailand.


FLORAL EXPRESSIONS. Garlands or MALAIS are used as social gestures for honoured guests. Floral arrangements especially those in the shape of lotus are used as religious & spiritual offerings .


THE TRADITIONAL THAI HOUSE (Baan). Traditionally these were made of solid teak without nails. They were built on thick timber stilts above ground for practical reasons. Basically they had three zones built on the timber deck. It consist of a zone for receiving and entertaining guests, a private zone for sleeping, and a services zone for cooking and housing servants. Off course there are many variations to this ground plan.


It is preferably for the main door to face East. Thus kitchens were always located in the west. The number of stilts and their spacing had to follow certain numerical. formulas. It is customary to provide a jar of water at the entrance for guests to wash their feet before entering the house. Thus a wet staircase projects hospitality.


ADAPTATIONS have always been a hallmark of Thai culture. From the way they have accommodated foreign interventions in the past to the way they express their artistry in their lives, we see many examples of how old traditions have been re-interpreted to suit a modern lifestyle; how new uses have been found for numerous articles of art, etc. Their artistic expressions have been supported by the abundance of raw materials found throughout Thailand, and a strong and beautiful artistic tradition. This is especially evident in Art, Architecture and Interior Design.


9.0    THE THAI WAY (some basic values)


The Thai is never direct because he avoids offending people and confrontation. Losing one's temper and raising one's voice is the height of BAD MANNERS! WAI is a form of greeting and must be reciprocated. Buddha images, the Royal family and old people must be respected.



10.0    WORDS THAT DEFINE THAI VALUES (or Culture through language)


SANUK - Having fun (loosely speaking). Noteworthy point : Thai Buddhism does not equate pleasure with sinfulness.

MAI PEN RAI - Never mind. Often used to avoid problems or confrontations. Indirectly expresses Thai & Buddhist values of accepting one's fate and maintaining composure in the face of adversity.

GRENG JAI - Being considerate. Not saying or doing anything in order not to offend. Promoting consideration for others.

SABAI JAI - Contented heart. This is a way of  helping someone out of a depressing situation. Sort of sayang (ing)                                    somebody.

NAM JAI - Flowing heart (Water heart) - Giving of money, generosity, making merit and other acts of goodness.

BOON KOON - (Invaluable, Immeasurable) Good Deeds.

SADUAK - Convenient. If something is inconvenient, it should not be carried out.










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