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A brief history of the Sukhothai Kingdom, the first Thai kingdom in the country’s heartland to overthrow the Angkorian Khmer Empire for independence.

A quick glance at Thai history will tell you that the Thai city-state of Sukhothai was the “first capital of Siam” or the beginnings of the Thai country, which led in a line through Ayutthaya to the modern nation-state of Thailand. While this isn’t wholly inaccurate, the history of the Sukhothai Kingdom and its relationship to the greater realm of Thailand and Southeast Asia is much more intricate and, in all honesty, much more interesting.

What is the Sukhothai Kingdom?

The Sukhothai Kingdom was relatively brief-lived in Southeast Asia. In its early years, Sukhothai neighbored the kingdoms of Lavo, Hariphunchai, and Phayao.

The Sukhothai Kingdom existed from 1238 to 1438, when it was absorbed into the more powerful Kingdom of Ayutthaya. It was largely a Theravada Buddhist territory. The Sukhothai Kingdom is often considered the first Thai Kingdom, as it was the first true declaration of Thai people’s independence.

Origins of the Sukhothai Kingdom

Prior to the creation of the Sukhothai Kingdom, the city, formerly known as Sukhodaya, was inhabited by the Khmer people. The Khmer Empire had a large hold on most of Southeast Asia, including the region that would become the Sukhothai Kingdom and its surrounding areas.

The people of Sukhothai Kingdom were primarily a blend of the Tai (Thai) peoples who had previously migrated from southern China. As the Khmer influence began to wane, they seized the opportunity to rebel against the Khmer governor at Sukhodaya. After this political restructuring, the Thai people coexisted alongside the Khmer people who had lived and settled at the outposts.

It was two Thai friends, Pho Khun Bangklanghao and Pho Khun Pha Mueang, who overthrew the governor of Sukhodaya. Together they took hold of the city in the name of the Thai people, founding the new state of “Sukhothai”. This effort led to an alliance of Thai nobles and population that had been inhabiting neighboring areas, which banded together in a new political mandala network, forming the Sukhothai Kingdom

Sukhothai’s Name Origins

Sukhothai was originally known as Sukhodaya. This name came from the Sanskrit words for happiness (sukha) and emergence (udaya). Together they mean the emergence, or dawn, of happiness, a nickname commonly cited for Sukhothai.

Once the Thai peoples gained the power of Sukhodaya, the city and its surrounding sphere of influence were referred to as “Sukhothai”, representing the Thai version of the Khmer word.

Culture and Beliefs of the Sukhothai Kingdom

Under the reign of Ramkamhaeng, the Sukhothai Kingdom expanded further south and came into power over the Kingdom of Tambralinga. It was here that Ramkamhaeng found Theravada Buddhism. After this, he named Theravada Buddhism as the State religion.

He also tasked the monks of Tambralinga with spreading the Theravada Buddhism throughout Sukhothai. This encouraged the development of a new written alphabet. Thus, Ramkamhaeng is credited with the invention of the Thai script.

The Sukhothai Kingdom was also heavily influenced by its eventual relationship with the Yuan Dynasty. The Yuan dynasty was an empire of China. Much of the works that were created in Sukhothai at this time had a Chinese influence on style.

Theravada Buddhism in the Sukhothai Kingdom

As Ramkamhaeng ensured, Theravada Buddhism became widespread throughout the Sukhothai Kingdom. The Sukhothai people are credited with creating the main positions of Buddha statues:

  • Standing
  • Sitting
  • Reclining
  • Walking

A delicate walking Buddha is particularly representative of Sukhothai’s influence.

There is even a part of the inscription on the Ramkhamhaeng Stele about Buddhism. This stele was a large stone piece that was inscribed with the Thai Script by order of Ramkhamhaeng.

This stone reads, “Inside this city of Sukhothai, there are viharns, there are golden statues of the Buddha; there are statues nine meters in height, there are big statues of the Buddha and medium-sized ones, there are big viharns and medium-sized ones; there are new monks; monks who have been so for five years, monks who have been so for ten years, and monks who are masters.”

Pottery in the Sukhothai Kingdom

Pottery was one of the main exports of the Sukhothai Kingdom during the 13th century. It was done in the Chinese style of the Song dynasty, which had preceded the Yuan dynasty.

When the Yuan dynasty and the Sukhothai Kingdom created a trade market, the Song-style pottery was purchased in large quantities by the Yuan peoples.

This is one of the only times those of Thai descent created works inspired by Chinese styles.

History of the Sukhothai Kingdom

The lands of the Sukhothai Kingdom were originally part of the Kingdom of Lavo, the western territory of the Khmer Empire. The Khmer Empire was a dominating force in Southeast Asia. It contained land in most of Southeast Asia from the 8th century until its fall in the 15th century.

It was when a local Tai ruler named Pho Khun Bangklanghao worked alongside friend Pho Khun Pha Mueang and overthrew the governor of Sukhodaya, that the Khmer hold on the Sukhothai Kingdom was loosened.

Bangklanghao took the lead as the ruler of the Sukhothai Kingdom and absorbed surrounding towns into his reign. This creation of the Sukhothai Kingdom is often celebrated as the first beginning of the Thai Kingdom.

Throwing Off Khmer Rule

Throughout the first centuries of the 1000s CE, Central Thailand was controlled by the Khmer Empire. The Khmer people originated from Cambodia, where they account for over 97% of the population today. The Khmers’ powerful historic empire was based in Angkor in northern Cambodia, however, they exercised control in Thailand through the Lavo Kingdom, centered in modern-day Lopburi, Thailand.

By 1100, the Khmer Empire’s territory had expanded to encompass most of modern Thailand. Originally, the city of Sukhothai was a military outpost for this empire in the northwestern extent of its domain. It was called Sukhodaya at that time.   

The Khmer people had another distant military outpost farther north in the Lavo Kingdom territory,  Dvaravati Hariphunchai Kingdom. Lavo waged a series of wars with Hariphunchai during the 1100s, however it was never able to bring Hariphunchai under Khmer control.

This outpost, called Chaliang, near the border of Hariphunchai, is still considered the furthest extent of Khmer power. As these cities were relieved of Khmer control, Chaliang would become a sort of second city in the Sukhothai Kingdom, named Si Satchanalai.

Bangklanghao, taking the name Si Inthrathit, ruled the Kingdom of Sukhothai, expanding his kingdom throughout the entire upper valley of the Chao Phraya River.

The Height of the Sukhothai Kingdom

It was under the rule of the third king of Sukhothai, Ramhamhaeng, who was one of Bangklanghao’s sons, that the Sukhothai Kingdom saw its most prosperous era.

From simply containing the upper valley of the Chao Phraya River, Ramhamhaeng expanded the borders of the kingdom further south.

He conquered the kingdoms of Supannabhum (Suphanburi) and Tambralinga (Nakhon Si Thammarat). It was in Tambralinga where Ramkhamhaeng is written to have found Sri-Lankan-inspired Theravada Buddhism, which he expanded throughout much of present-day Thailand. Under his prosperous reign, Sukhothai came to hold most of Thailand by the end of the 13th century, while the Khmers still held land on the eastern side of Thailand.

The Fall of the Sukhothai Kingdom

It was after Ramhamhaeng’s death that the Kingdom of Sukhothai began to fall. Once he passed, most of the tributaries, the widespread cities that had joined under the name Sukhothai, broke off.

Slowly, the states regained their independence, and most renounced the leadership of Ramhamhaeng’s son, Loethai. The Lanna Kingdom took hold of the city of Tak, one of the oldest cities of the Sukhothai Kingdom.

After all of this separation and loss, the Sukhothai Kingdom was reduced to its former area surrounding the city of Sukhothai.

The city saw more disputes over the next century, with brother heirs Phaya Ram and Phaya Ban Muang fighting for the throne. The then-powerful Kingdom of Ayutthaya intervened, splitting the land between them.

Eventually, Ayutthaya took hold of the Sukhothai Kingdom altogether.

Geography of the Sukhothai Kingdom

The Sukhothai Kingdom in Thailand

In Thai society, the Sukhothai Kingdom has gained the popular reputation of being the beginnings of the Kingdom of Thailand. It is often portrayed as a kind of Golden Age, much in a similar manner that Classical Greece is in Western society.

Prior to this kingdom’s creation, most of the land of Thailand was under Khmer control. When Bangklanghao brought together many Thai nobles that had been ruling separately under Khmer control, he created the Kingdom of Sukhothai. This was the first truly Thai royal kingdom.

This allowed the Thai people to build their culture together, diverging from the previous Khmer influence.

This included creating and exporting pottery in Sukhothai style, which was often ceramic with a green glaze.

It also included the stylized architecture and statues of Sukhothai. Their Buddha statues became known for their grace and elegance, and their temples were often adorned with lotus-bud finials and bell-shaped stupas. Architects traveled to Sukhothai to decorate the temples with carved stucco and expensive brick.

The Sukhothai Kingdom in Greater Southeast Asia

Though the Kingdom of Sukhothai was relatively short-lived, the culture they created lives on. Sukhothai became a conduit of Thai and Buddhist influences from the Andaman and Gulf of Thailand coasts, influencing the later emergence of Lanna, Lan Xang, and Ayutthaya kingdoms, and even Theravada traditions that soon came to take hold in the Khmer Empire.

You can see their influence clearly in statues and works of architecture in Thailand. The Sukhothai people combined influences from many different cultures to create their own ornate statues, which can be seen in many locations either in ruins or revived modern architecture today. They brought in influences from the Thai, Khmer, Mon, and Sri Lankan cultures.

What Happened to the Sukhothai Kingdom?

Sukhothai prospered for a little under a century, gaining tributary kingdoms and spanning the majority of modern Thailand. However, this short-lived golden age ended shortly after the death of their legendary King Ramkhamhaeng. Following this, most of the tributary kingdoms broke away or were seized by other powers.

Among the areas that broke away was Ayutthaya in the former Lavo Kingdom, which quickly expanded its power. In 1349, Sukhothai was invaded by Ayutthaya and made into a tributary kingdom. Rather than being dominated outright, Sukhothai would retain some level of autonomy under Ayutthaya with this arrangement. This era of independence would come to an end in 1378, when the king of Ayutthaya placed his son as the ruler of Sukhothai under the direct rule of Ayutthaya.

In 1438, the Kingdom of Sukhothai was entirely absorbed by the Kingdom of Ayutthaya. The center of the Kingdom of Sukhothai is still standing and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Thailand. As Ayutthaya later struggled in its wars with the invading Burmese, Sukhothai’s importance diminished as other northern cities, such as Phitsanulok, grew in influence.

Eventually, Sukhothai and its kingdom faded from even the memory of Siam until its rediscovery by King Mongkut in the 1800s.

Cities of the Sukhothai Kingdom

Sukhothai
Sukhothai, Thailand
GPS: 17.01756, 99.70384

Si Satchanalai
Sukhothai, Thailand
GPS: 17.43391, 99.78779

Kamphaeng Phet
Kamphaeng Phet, Thailand
GPS:     16.48578, 99.52594

Nakhon Chum
Kamphaeng Phet, Thailand
GPS: 16.47479, 99.49639

Phitsanulok
Phitsanulok, Thailand
GPS: 16.82053, 100.25793

Ban Tak
Tak, Thailand
GPS: 17.06363, 99.04884

Muang Fang
Uttaradit, Thailand
GPS: 17.63919, 100.22684

Mueang Thung Yang
Uttaradit, Thailand
GPS: 17.60025, 100.04472

Monuments of the Sukhothai Kingdom

Wat Mahathat
Sukhothai, Thailand
GPS: 17.01705, 99.70389

Wat Sra Sri
Sukhothai, Thailand
GPS: 17.01963, 99.70112

Wat Si Chum
Sukhothai, Thailand
GPS: 17.02702, 99.69354

Wat Saphan Hin
Sukhothai, Thailand
GPS: 17.02313, 99.67543

Wat Chang Lom Sukhothai
Sukhothai, Thailand
GPS: 17.02024, 99.71948

Wat Chang Lom Si Satchalanai
Sukhothai, Thailand
GPS: 17.02, 99.71966

Wat Phra Kaeo
Kamphaeng Phet, Thailand
GPS: 16.48826, 99.51793

Wat Phra That
Kamphaeng Phet, Thailand
GPS: 16.48765, 99.52043

Wat Aranyik
Phitsanulok, Thailand
GPS: 16.82612, 100.27798

Wat Phra Si Ariyabot
Kamphaeng Phet, Thailand
GPS: 16.50126, 99.51456

Wat Ruesi Samran
Uttaradit, Thailand
GPS: 17.61098, 100.04639

Fast Facts

Name: Sukhothai Kingdom
Origin: Thai nobles and populations united to drive out the regional Khmer governors of Sukhodaya.
Language: Thai
Religion: Theravada Buddhism (minor Hinduism)
Era: 1238-1378 CE
Location: Central & Northern Thailand
Capital: Sukhothai, Thailand
Decline: Conquered by Ayutthaya and slowly annexed into their expanding empire.

Glossary

Angkor
Capital of the Khmer Empire, located near modern day Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Ayutthaya
City in central Thailand and historic capital of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which was succeeded by the Thonburi Kingdom in 1767.

Buddhism
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.

Chiang Saen
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Ngoenyang Kingdom until the establishment of its successor, the Lanna Kingdom, in 1293 CE.

Dvaravati
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) to Thailand.

Hariphunchai Kingdom
Dvaravati kingdom in northern Thailand (c. 750 – 1292 CE) centered in the modern town of Lamphun. Eventually conquered by the Lanna Kingdom.

Hinduism
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. It stems from Vedic teachings and one of the oldest extant religions in the world.

Jayavarman VII
Mahayana Buddhist king of the Khmer Empire from 1181–1218 who conquered Champa, built Angkor Thom, and initiated massive engineering projects to rebuild the kingdom.

Kamphaeng Phet
City in Central Thailand and historically part of the Sukhothai Kingdom.

Khmer
Austroasiatic ethnic group native to Southeast Asia and the majority inhabitants of the modern nation of Cambodia.

Khmer Empire
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.

Lanna Kingdom
Thai kingdom based in northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. Its capitals included Chiang Rai, Wiang Kum Kam, and Chiang Mai.

Lavo Kingdom
Dvaravati kingdom in central Thailand centered in the modern town of Lopburi. Eventually conquered by the Khmer Empire.

Lopburi
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lavo Kingdom founded by the Dvaravati culture. It was subsequently ruled by the Khmer Empire and the Ayutthaya Kingdom.

Nakhon Si Thammarat
City in southern Thailand and the historic capital of Tambralinga.

Phayao
City in northern Thailand and historic center of the Phayao Kingdom before becoming part of the Lanna Kingdom.

Ramkhamhaeng
Legendary king of Sukhothai who is popularly credited with creating the Thai writing system.

Ramkhamhaeng Inscription
Inscription discovered by King Mongkut at Sukhothai which is allegedly the first instance of Thai writing created by Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai.

Rattanakosin Kingdom
Thai kingdom and successor to the Thonburi Kingdom. Based in Bangkok and founded in 1782, the Rattanakosin era lasted until 1932, when political reforms transformed the kingdom into the modern nation of Thailand.

stupa
Buddhist monument used to enshrine sacred relics or memorialize important figures. Its dome, bell, or otherwise tower-like appearance is an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.

Sukhothai
City in central-northern Thailand and abandoned capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom.

viharn
The main worship hall in a Buddhist temple.

wat
Thai word meaning “temple”

Sources

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

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