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A story of the Siamese Ayuthaya: A postcard from 1991!

October 9, 2018

Yes, this is all about Ayuthaya – right here in Thailand. About 85 Kms up north of Bangkok! It was the capital of Siam (ancient Thailand) from A.D. 1350-1767. Thirty-three kings of various Siamese dynasties reigned in Ayuthaya, the full name being Phra Nakhon Si Ayuthaya or the sacred city of Ayothaya, until it was conquered and destroyed by the Burmese in 1767. The city was burnt and with it almost all the official records and annals were lost.

Flourishing hub for international trade

From the documents available it appears that the Portugese came to Siam in 1511. The Spaniards in 1594, having gained a foothold in the Philippines in 1565, next came the Dutch in 1607, the English in 1512 and the French in 1662. In those early days, Ayuthaya was a city built upon an island, which was surrounded by several other smaller islands interconnected by a rich pattern of canals or streams. The island on which the city stood was enclosed within a city wall. Inside was the king’s palace and government buildings, and no foreigner was allowed to live therein. All foreigners, whether French, English, Dutch, Portugese, Japanese, Chinese or Indian, who settled in Ayuthaya, lived according to their nationalities, in camps or villages outside the city wall.

De La Loubere, who was a French envoy in Ayuthaya during 1687—88 describes, “The City of Siam is not only an island but is placed in the middle of several islands, which renders the situation thereof very singular. The island wherein it is situated is at present all enclosed within its walls. It has almost the figure of a purse, the mouth of which is to the east and the bottom to the West. The river meets it at the North by several channels, which run into that which environs it, and leaves it on the South, by separating itself again into several streams.

The King’s palace the North of the canal which embraces the city, and by which alone as by an isthmus, people may go out of the city without crossing the river. The city is spacious, considering the circuit of its walls which enclose the whole isle, but scarce the sixth part thereof is inhabited, and that to the southeast only. The rest lies desert where temples only stand.

Tis true that the suburbs, which are possessed by strangers, do considerably increase the number of people. The streets thereof are large and straight, and in some places planted with trees, and paved with bricks laid edgewise. The houses are low and built with wood; at least those belonging to the natives who, for these reasons, are exposed to all the inconveniences of the excessive heat. Most of the streets are watered with straight canals, which have made Siam to be compared to Venice and on which are a great many small bridges of hurdles and some of brick very high and ugly”

Global trade routes

To and from Ayuthaya, there were two trade routes whereby goods could pass to and from foreign countries. One was from Paknam, in the Gulf of Siam, upto the river Menam (now Chao Phya), through Bangkok right upto Ayuthaya. In those days, the river was navigable for sailing ships as far as Ayuthaya, where most of the trade was done. This route was followed by ships sailing to and from China and Japan.

The other route was overland from Ayuthaya to the town of Tennaserim and on to Mergui on the east coast of the Bay of Bengal. The whole trip from Mergui to Ayuthaya or vice versa could be accomplished in ten days. Indian and Peyian traders preferred this route via Mergui to going through the Straits of Malacca and up the Gulf of Siam to Paknam. The Indian and Persian ships did not go all the way to China and Japan, and the Chinese and Japanese did not go direct to India. Siam was the halfway house where these traders met and exchanged their goods. The Chinese & Japanese brought to Ayuthaya silk, tea, porcelain, quicksilver and copper—bronze vessels, and took in exchange scented woods, pepper, hides & birds’ nests.

Along the overland route from the ancient capital to Mergui, dealers lived in Ayuthaya, Tenasserim and Mergui, received from China and Japan goods which were in demand in India and Persia, or vice Japanese articles could be sold in England at a large profit but the Japanese who came to Ayuthaya dealt mainly with the Dutch and the Muslims.

For many years the English East India Company had not considered the Siamese trade as a coast trade and although the Company had maintained agents in Ayuthaya on and off from the beginning of the seventeenth century, these agents had never been able to enter Japan trade. This was due to the opposition of the Dutch who had their headquarters in Java & a fine factory in Ayuthaya, and did their best to keep all other traders, including the Siamese, out of the Japan trade.

The downfall

Interestingly, history of this Ayuthaya too is not free of controversy. According to popular accounts, Ayuthaya met its downfall after four centuries of glory, when it was weakest under someone dubbed as the leper King, the incompetent King Ekadasna. Probably the most detested character in Thai history. During the wars, he reportedly ordered the soldiers not to fire mortars at the Burmese troops because his concubines were frightened of the noise. And he eventually met his pitiful fate by dying from hunger during his hiding!

While history has made Ekadasna a bad guy, the Thai historians are questioning whether he was really incompetent or was he a scapegoat? Was Ayuthaya really militarily weak at that time? Were the Burmese troops mere guerrillas, not a fully supported army? An alternate school of thought seems to be emerging.

Today the ruins are but parts of a boisterous town. Booming largely on the account of upcoming industries in the neighbourhood. Tourism of course accounts for a sizable revenue. It takes an hour and half from Bangkok to drive down the excellent highway heading to Chiangmai, further up. There are regular luxury buses plying to and fro Ayuthaya.

Seats could be booked for a keen tourist by any hotel. Another alternative is a one-way cruise onboard ‘Ayuthaya Princess’ on the Chaophraya river. The package involves a return by airconditioned buses.

 

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