History of Thailand: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

The written history of Thailand stretches back nearly one thousand years, but southeastern Asian civilization is older still. From its earliest cities to the modern nation, learn about Thailand's history of growth, conquest, colonization, and revolution.

Going Back

Remember how every U.S. history course always starts with the first Native Americans to enter North America? The first persons to inhabit the region that today is the Southeast Asian country of Thailand migrated to the area about 20,000 years ago. These ancient peoples used simple stone tools to hunt, fish, and gather food. About 6,000 years ago, a major game-changer came on the scene with the Agricultural Revolution, the discovery of how to plant crops and raise livestock instead of searching out your next meal. The cultivation of rice proved to be a major event in East Asian history, allowing the construction of permanent cities and the development of culture.

Chiefs and Beliefs

Around the 7th century AD, Buddhism became the dominant religion through much of southeastern Asia. Buddhism emphasizes the importance of living a peaceful life in search of enlightenment and rebirth as a divine being. From around 500 to 900, Dvaravati culture flourished in the northern region of Thailand, building beautiful sculptures and casting coins that have survived to this day. By the same time, ethnic Thai peoples began to migrate from southern China into Thailand's coasts and jungles, slowly becoming the majority.

Statue of Buddha
Statue of Buddha

By 1000, the Khmer Empire, spreading out from neighboring Cambodia, ruled over most of Thailand. In 1238, the Thai declared their independence from the Khmer Empire under the leadership of Sri Indraditya. This represents the first instance in history of the use of the word Thai, which means 'free'. The new Thai kingdom, Sukhothai, ruled for two hundred years in the north, but a rival kingdom Ayutthaya in the south began to grow strong in the mid-1300s and would take over the region altogether in 1438. The Ayutthaya built their capital at Phitsanulok, which is one of the oldest cities still standing in Thailand.

Khmer Ruins in Lopburi, Thailand
Ruins in Lopburi, Thailand

Outside Influence

By 1500, European nations had fleets of sailing vessels that could travel across the globe and project their power. The Portuguese made contact with the Ayutthaya kingdom in the early 1500s, establishing treaties and developing trading networks to benefit both nations. In the next century, Ayutthaya also began to trade with England, the Netherlands, and France, but fear of outsiders made the country shut its borders in the mid-1600s. Not for another 150 years would Europeans be welcome, but this time is remembered as the Ayutthaya Golden Age, ushering in prosperity and artistic masterpieces.

The Golden Age came to an abrupt end in 1767, however, when a Burmese army toppled the kingdom. In 1782, a new kingdom known as Siam came to dominate Thailand. The current king of Thailand traces his ancestry back to the founders of Siam, and the kingdom of Siam established Thailand's present capital of Bangkok. While the English colonized Burma to the west and the French colonized Indochina to the east, Siam remained independent.

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