The Long Road From Mecca to Manila


Is watching the new “Star Wars” movie on your list of things to do during this holiday season?  Go ahead, but I hope you will also take time to listen to the latest episode of my podcast, the last episode scheduled for 2016.  Here you will learn how Islam came to Southeast Asia, and meet Malacca, the first important Southeast Asian state that converted to the new religion.

And here is a map showing how Islam spread across Southeast Asia, starting with Aceh (also spelled Acheh or Atjeh), from 1240 to 1600.


(Transcript, added 12/29/2019)


Episode 11: The Long Road from Mecca to Manila

Greetings, dear listeners! What place do you think of when you hear the words “Islam” and “Moslem”? Chances are it is the Middle East, right? Well, the Middle East is the birthplace of that religion, and in our time, Islam has certainly made headlines in the Middle East. Because this is not a political podcast, I’d better not say too much about this subject, but you can probably think of several examples of how Islam continues to inject itself into current events.


While you are right in associating Islam with the Middle East, it would be a mistake to stop with that. Over the past 1,400 years, the followers of Islam have successfully spread it well beyond the Middle East, into more fertile parts of the world. Consequently, today the world’s largest Moslem communities are not in the Middle East, but in Africa and East Asia. Here, in the format of the famous “top ten lists,” are the ten countries with the largest Moslem populations. Can I have a drumroll?


10. Morocco

9. Algeria

8. Turkey

7. Iran

6. Egypt. This is the largest country on the list that’s in the Middle East.

5. Nigeria

4. Bangladesh

3. India. When the Indian subcontinent was divided in 1947, to create Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan, a lot of folks were left on the wrong side of the line, because there were Hindus and Moslems in virtually every town and village. Indeed, the partition has been called “the most complicated divorce in history.” As a result, today there are 172 million Moslems in India, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who did not get out in 1947, and because there are 1.7 billion Moslems worldwide, this means one out of every ten Moslems lives in present-day India, an enormous minority in a Hindu-majority country. Now back to the list.

2. Pakistan

And the number one largest Moslem country in the world is a Southeast Asian country — Ta Da! — Indonesia.


Back in the introduction to this podcast, I stated that today 618 million people, one twelfth of the human race, live in Southeast Asia. Of those people, 257 million, or 41 percent, are Moslem. In the episodes recorded up to this point, I have talked quite a bit about the role Hinduism and Buddhism played in Southeast Asian civilization, but nowadays the top religion in Southeast Asia is Islam. Three Southeast Asian countries are predominantly Moslem — Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei — and among the other eight, four of them — the Philippines, East Timor, Myanmar and Thailand — have been under Moslem pressure since the late twentieth century. For all these reasons, we have to discuss at some point how Islam came to Southeast Asia, and since the last few episodes talked about everything else that happened in Southeast Asia during the Middle Ages, the time to discuss the introduction of Islam is now.


I am not going to talk about the origin of Islam here. Not only did it happen away from Southeast Asia, but plenty of authors have discussed how Islam got started already. And not just in books. Forty years ago, a movie about Mohammed was made, called “The Message,” starring Anthony Quinn as the Prophet’s uncle. At the time the movie generated some controversy, though in respect of Islamic commandments, Mohammed himself never appeared in the movie, nor was his voice ever heard; the actors spoke to an empty spot where the Prophet was supposed to be. An animated version of the story, called “Muhammad: The Last Prophet,” was made in 2002.


Then in late 2015, a podcast was launched on Islamic history, called The History of Islam Podcast. At the time when I am recording this episode, The History of Islam Podcast has seventeen episodes online, and at the rate it is going, several more episodes will be needed just to finish the story of Mohammed. Maybe someday I will record a podcast episode about early Islam, but I am sure I won’t be able to devote as much detail to it as Elias Belhaddad is doing now. Another podcaster, Robin Pierson of The History of Byzantium Podcast, has also devoted time to discuss the origin of Islam, since it is directly related to the subject matter he covers, but he takes a more skeptical view, asking if anything we know about the story of early Islam can be trusted, because we do not have any texts or coins from before the year 750, that mention Mohammed or Islam.


On the other hand, the story of Islam’s introduction to Southeast Asia goes back nearly as far as the story of Islam itself, to the early seventh century. Those of you who listened to Episode 6 will remember that Indonesia’s first major kingdom, Srivijaya, got rich by trading with both the Arabs and the Chinese, and Chinese records indicate that Arab traders were coming to China when the great Tang dynasty was founded, in 618. If the traditional biography of Mohammed is correct, this happened while Mohammed was alive, but before he conquered Arabia, so the first Arab traders to the Far East were probably Sabaeans, followers of the old-time paganism that most Arabs practiced before they converted to Islam. Some Arab traders may also have been Christians, because Christian missionaries had converted a few Arab tribes by that time, like the Ghassanids in the Syrian-Jordanian desert.


We have a story about Mohammed sending out a letter in 628, after he had gained the initiative against his rivals. The only thing we know about the letter is that it called upon the recipient to acknowledge the one true God and to serve him. Supposedly identical copies went to the three most powerful monarchs in the world. Today historians doubt such a letter ever existed, but the story is too good to ignore, so I am sharing it here.


One copy of the letter went to Heraclius, the Eastern Roman or Byzantine emperor. We have no record of Heraclius receiving it; if he did, he did not bother to answer, because he would have had no idea who Mohammed was.


Another copy went to the Sassanid king of Persia, Kavadh II. Unlike Heraclius, the Persians knew about Mohammed, because they had clashed with Mohammed’s followers, in Yemen and on the Persian frontier. Kavadh tore up the letter, flung the pieces at the messenger, and ordered him to leave. When Mohammed heard about this response, he cried out, “Even so, O Lord! Rend thou his kingdom from him.” And that became the excuse for war when the Arabs invaded Persia, a few years after Mohammed’s death.


The third copy of the letter went to Taizong, the emperor of China. This letter took a year to reach him, and it received the most positive response. Taizong happened to be friendlier to foreigners than any other emperor in Chinese history, and he expressed interest in the new theology the Arabs brought. Another Arab embassy went to China in 651, this time led by Sa’d ibn abi Waqqas, a relative of Mohammed. The emperor at this date, Gaozong, ordered the construction of a mosque in Canton, for the benefit of any other Arabs who might visit. This was one of the oldest mosques in the world, but it was rebuilt in 1350, burned down later, and was rebuilt again in 1695, so you can’t visit the original mosque. The mosque which stands in Canton today is called Huaisheng, meaning “Remember the Sage”; another name for it is the Lighthouse Mosque, because the bare pagoda built to serve as a minaret for it looks like a lighthouse.


I mentioned all this because when the Arabs went to China, they had to go past Southeast Asia, like everyone else who sailed to China from the west. Therefore Arab ships were coming to Southeast Asia as early as 618, and possibly sooner than that. And like the other merchants, they would have stopped in ports belonging to early Southeast Asian nations like Srivijaya, Funan, and Champa. We now believe that Islam spread to Southeast Asia in three stages. The first stage happened before the year 1000; during this time the Arabs could have sent a few missionaries and diplomats, but most of the Arabs going east would have been merchants, folks more interested in making a profit than in making converts. If they made any converts at this early date, they must have been few in number. The oldest evidence of Islam anywhere in Southeast Asia is a woman’s tombstone on eastern Java, dated 1082.


The second stage of conversion happened between 1000 and 1250. What changed was that Moslems like Mahmud of Ghazni, an early Turkish ruler, were now conquering and converting parts of India. Also, other Moslems besides the Arabs, like Persians and Africans, could now visit Southeast Asia. In 1944 five copper coins were found on Australia’s northern coast, near the city of Darwin, and recently they were identified as 1,000-year-old coins from Kilwa, a city in modern-day Tanzania. Nobody knows how the coins got to Australia, but we have a theory; they could have been left by Arab or African merchants who were sailing to or from Indonesia, and got blown off course.


Finally, by this time, a form of mysticism called Sufism had become popular across the Islamic world. Apparently both Indians and Southeast Asians did not find Islam appealing until they discovered the many Sufi sects, which combine Islam with ideas from other religions, like the veneration of saints. This turned out to be more compatible with Asian cultures than the strict Sunni doctrine of Arabia.


When Southeast Asians converted to Islam, they were not willing to give up the combination of Hinduism, Buddhism, and animism they had practiced previously, since their whole heritage was tied up in it. Back in Episode 3, we noted that Far Eastern cultures allow more than one religion to exist side by side, so Southeast Asians modified Islam to fit into the way of life they already had. For example, Indonesia is mostly Moslem today, but on holidays they still have plays which re-enact stories from Hindu myths such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. And we noted in Episode 6 that Indonesians wholeheartedly supported the United Nations-led project that restored the ancient Borobudur temple. Clifford Geertz, a British journalist who visited Java in 1960, recorded a typical prayer given by a Javanese villager to begin a feast. The prayer honored the guardian spirits of the village and of the master of ceremonies, the household angel of the kitchen, the ancestors of all the guests, and the spirits of the fields, waters, and a nearby volcano. Finally, the prayer ended piously with Islam’s first commandment: “There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.”


The first predominantly Moslem state in Southeast Asia appears to have been Aceh, located on the northwestern tip of Sumatra. This area was in the news in 2004, when a terrible tsunami struck all the lands around the Indian Ocean, and because northwest Sumatra was the nearest land to the epicenter of the earthquake that caused the tsunami, the city in this area, Bandar Aceh, was the city hardest hit. In fact, Aceh made news again just before I recorded this episode, because a 6.5 magnitude earthquake struck here on December 7, 2016, killing at least 97 people. It is no surprise to us that Islam got a foothold here first, because any ship approaching the Straits of Malacca from the west would have passed Aceh, before coming to any other Southeast Asian lands.


The two outstanding travelers of the Middle Ages, Marco Polo and his North African counterpart, Mohammed Ibn Battuta, both visited Aceh in the course of their journeys. Marco Polo stopped there in 1292, and reported that Aceh had converted to Islam fifty years earlier. We also have Chinese records of a Moslem delegation visiting Kublai Khan’s court in 1282, from a state called Samudra or Pasai, which was next to Aceh on the Sumatran coast. Then when Ibn Battuta came by around 1345, he reported Aceh had been Moslem for a hundred years, so we have a ballpark figure; northwest Sumatra converted at some time in the 1240s. This marked the beginning of the third stage of conversion. Now that there was a country in Southeast Asia that promoted Islam, conversions happened much faster than before.


From northwest Sumatra, Islam followed the trade routes, establishing numerous enclaves on the Malay peninsula and on the coasts of the nearest islands. Often the natives converted so that they could get a share of the Indian Ocean trade; now that there was a choice between doing business with Moslems and non-Moslems, the Arabs naturally felt more comfortable buying and selling to the former. Still, it was an uphill struggle, because Moslems were outnumbered by the non-Moslems around them. Nevertheless, in other parts of the world, like Africa, India and the Balkan corner of Europe, Islam could make progress against larger populations, so Islam advanced in Southeast Asia, too. What helped at this stage was that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Islam became a way to express political opposition, first against Majapahit, the Hindu-Buddhist empire that dominated Indonesia previously, and later against the Christian Europeans. After 1400, Moslem-ruled states besides Aceh and Pasai popped up all around Indonesia. On the Facebook page of this podcast, and on the page where this episode is hosted, there is a map showing how Islam spread throughout the region.


It is quick and easy sailing from Java to Borneo, and the same can be said of the trip from Borneo to the Philippines. As the business of Moslem traders expanded, the peoples north and east of Java were encouraged to convert. In the Philippines the nearest islands to Borneo, the Sulu islands and Basilan, were converted first, and then tribes on the big southern island, Mindanao, were converted next. As in Indonesia, the missionary traders converted the coastal communities of Mindanao, but they completely bypassed the stone-age tribes living in the interior, since the interior tribes were almost inaccessible and played no part in the commercial network. Eventually Moslems were attracted to Luzon, the largest and most important island of the Philippines, because Manila Bay is one of the finest harbors in Asia. A Moslem leader named Rajah Suleiman established himself in Manila in 1558, just a few years before the Spaniards arrived. We will come back to the Philippines in a future episode, when we cover the Spanish exploration and conquest of that archipelago.



The first Moslem State in Southeast Asia with real power was Malacca, and it was located on the Malay Peninsula. The Malays wrote down Malacca’s history in a text called The Malay Annals, of which the oldest known copy dates to 1612. However, it begins the story with the founding of another state, from the end of the thirteenth century. When the Srivijayan empire fell apart, a prince from the Srivijayan capital, Palembang, went looking for a new place to call his own. Originally his name was Sang Nila Utama, but today he is better known by the name he took for himself later, Seri Teri Buana. Whatever you want to call him, he first spent a few years on Bintan, a small island between Malaya and Sumatra; then in 1299 he went to an island just off the tip of Malaya, then called Temasek. After landing, he went inland to do some hunting, and the prince saw a strange animal that he described as having an orange body, a black head, and a white breast. The animal escaped into the jungle before he could catch it, and when he asked what it was, his chief minister told him it was a lion. Since lions don’t come in those colors, and lions don’t live in Southeast Asia, it was probably a tiger or some other kind of jungle cat. Still, the prince took this as a good omen, so he decided to found a city here, and he renamed Temasek Singapura, which is Sanskrit for Lion City; of course this is the city we now call Singapore.


Seri Teri Buana ruled for 48 years, and Singapura prospered, though it was surrounded by two growing powers, Siam to the north and Majapahit to the south. Long-time listeners will remember we met Majapahit, Java’s strongest state, in Episode 6, and we met Siam in Episode 10. That was the situation when Singapura’s fifth ruler, Parameswara, took charge in 1389. For better or for worse, Parameswara’s fortunes depended on the women in his life. The first woman was a concubine of his, whom he accused of adultery, and he humiliated her by having her stripped naked in public. The concubine’s father, Sang Rajuna Tapa, was one of Parameswara’s officials, and he got revenge by sending a letter to the king of Majapahit, offering his support if the king attacked. Majapahit responded by sending a huge fleet against Singapura in 1398, and it took the city after a month-long siege. Parameswara and his followers fled to Malaya, and likewise we will leave Singapore for now; it will not become important until the British acquire it in 1819.


After considering several possible locations for a new home, the fugitives chose a village named Malacca in 1401, where the local fishermen accepted Parameswara as their ruler. Malacca had a superb location for commerce, being right at the narrowest point of the Malacca Strait, but otherwise it was not very promising. The port was poor, and so was the surrounding land, which could not grow enough food to feed a large population. Finally, both Siam and Majapahit claimed the whole Malay peninsula for themselves. For Malacca to survive it needed a powerful ally, and it was found in China. In 1405 China began sending huge naval expeditions into the Pacific and Indian Oceans. These fleets, numbering hundreds of ships and thousands of men, were commanded by an admiral named Zheng He, who happened to be a Chinese Moslem.


To secure Chinese support, Parameswara went to the Ming dynasty court more than once, and offered homage and tribute to the emperor; the emperor responded by officially declaring Parameswara the rightful prince of Malacca, and a loyal vassal under Chinese protection. After that, when China warned “Hands off Malacca!” the Siamese and Javanese listened and obeyed. The Orang Laut, the sea people who used to work for Srivijaya, were hired to patrol the waters in the strait, keep the pirates away, and direct merchant ships to Malacca. Next, Parameswara invited Moslem merchants to visit his state by charging them less for port duties and expenses than they were paying in Sumatra. In 1414 Parameswara converted to Islam, and changed his name to Megat Iskander Shah, which is Malay for King Mohammed Alexander. Again, a woman was the reason for this; he converted because he had married a princess from Pasai, a state which we saw was Moslem already. Most of his people followed his example, but not right away–after his death in 1424, the next two kings had both Moslem and non-Moslem names. Only after 1446 could the city be considered completely converted, and from then on its rulers showed it by calling themselves by the Turkish title of sultan, rather than king or rajah.


The Chinese naval expeditions stopped after 1433, but for Malacca that was okay, they weren’t needed anymore. By that time, Majapahit had declined to the point that it was no longer a threat, and Malacca had grown rich enough to hire enough mercenaries to keep Siam at a safe distance. The mercenaries proved their worth when they repelled a land invasion from Siam in 1445, and a seaborne invasion in 1456. We saw in the last episode that Siam had more than one strong king and an efficient government at this time, so these victories were no small achievements. The next sultan, Mansur Shah, ruled from 1459 to 1477, and he embarked on an expansionist policy, sending forth warriors and ships to conquer the lands around Malacca. By the time he was done, Malacca was no longer a city-state but a full-fledged sultanate, controlling the whole Malay peninsula and a big chunk of eastern Sumatra.


Even more important, Malacca controlled one of the world’s most important waterways, so now it received the same kind of wealth that had gone to previous Southeast Asian states with fleets. Thus, Malacca became Southeast Asia’s busiest port, receiving ships from the Middle East, India, China and Indonesia. The Indonesian ships were the most important in the long run, because they brought spices from the Molucca islands, near New Guinea. These islands, soon to be called “the Spice Islands” by Europeans, are the world’s largest source of black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, mace and camphor.


Spices have been a valuable trade commodity for a very long time. In 2013, archaeologists in Israel reported the discovery of several flasks, three thousand years old, that contained traces of cinnamon. This told me that King Solomon must have liked spices. Then in the classical era of the Greeks and Romans, a trade route was set up across the Indian Ocean to bring spices from India to Egypt, and from Egypt they were distributed across the Mediterranean basin; this “Spice Road” was almost as profitable as the famous Silk Road that ran across Central Asia between China and Persia. Of course most of the Indian spices were home-grown, but even this early, some could have come from farther east. By the end of the Middle Ages, the demand for spices in Europe and the Middle East was at an all-time high, because European and Middle Eastern diets were terribly bland without them; moreover, they helped make spoiled meat tolerable, which made a difference before refrigeration was invented. In addition, spices were widely used as medicines, and merchants considered them to be the ideal cargo: a nonperishable commodity that can be worth a lot of money without taking up a lot of cargo space.


Unfortunately for Western Europe, the spices were not brought west by one caravan, but by a relay of merchants: Indonesians, Chinese, Indians, Persians, Arabs and finally Italians. Each group usually did not travel much more than a thousand miles, and because merchants make their money by buying cheap and selling dear, every time the cargo changed hands the price went up. For example, a bag of cloves typically sold for three ducats in India. A ducat was a gold coin from the city of Venice, the most popular currency in Renaissance times; it contained three and a half grams of gold, so it was worth approximately $150 American dollars in today’s money. However, that same bag could cost almost fifty times as much by the time it reached Venice. Do the math; $150 * 3 * 50 = $22,500! How about that? One bag of cloves could buy an economy car in today’s money! And that is not including the markup for those spices sold in western Europe.


The people in one of the countries farthest to the west of Venice, Portugal, justifiably felt that the spice trade was ripping them off. In the early fifteenth century, Portuguese ships started exploring the Atlantic Ocean and the coast of Africa. At first they were looking to get African commodities, like gold and ivory, but when the Portuguese realized it might be possible to go to the Orient by sailing around Africa, they got the idea that if they could get the spices without dealing with middlemen, they would make a huge profit. Now the Portuguese saw spices the same way that modern nations see oil; they thought that the nation which controlled pepper would control the world! Thus, the Age of Exploration began, culminating when a sailor named Christopher Columbus tried an alternative route to Asia and discovered America.




On that note, the Middle Ages are now over, and the modern era in Southeast Asian history is ready to begin, so this is a good place to end the episode. When I started this podcast, I set for myself a goal of two episodes a month, each about thirty minutes long. In practice, forty minutes per episode worked better than thirty, but I kept to the two-episode schedule. Therefore, this will be the last episode I upload in 2016. If you are listening to this in December 2016, come back after 2017 begins, when we will introduce the Europeans, a new set of players who will change the rules of the game completely. I promise you, things won’t get boring, with Western nations interfering in Southeast Asian events. In the meantime, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, happy whatever holiday you celebrate in December, and Happy New Year!


As I said on previous episodes, if you like what you just heard, consider making a donation to support this podcast, using the Paypal button on this episode’s page. Every donation is appreciated, and Paypal will set it up either for a one-time payment, or a monthly one, starting with amounts as small as one American dollar. If you listen to this podcast on iTunes, consider writing a review. Those are appreciated, too, because reviews attract new listeners. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!

The Birth of Siam and Laos


We’re almost finished looking at Southeast Asia in the Middle Ages.  The newest episode tells how Siam (modern Thailand) and Lan Xang (Laos) got started.  And you will get to hear me mangle more names that were never meant to be pronounced by English speakers!

(Transcript, added 12/16/2019)

Episode 10: The Birth of Siam and Laos

Greetings, dear listeners! I will begin with a quick recap from the early episodes of this podcast, about the migrations. Back then, I pointed out that 5,000 years ago, the ancestors of most of today’s Southeast Asians were not living in Southeast Asia. They lived in lands that are now part of China, including Taiwan, and they moved out in several waves of migrations. The Malays moved first, and centuries later, they were followed by the Mon-Khmers, then the Viets, then the Tibeto-Burmans, and finally the Thais. What got the Malays moving was opportunity; when they invented the outrigger canoe and learned how to sail across the sea, they had the ability to discover new lands and perform the activities that simulation gaming calls the 4 Xs: Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate! We don’t know what motivated the Mon-Khmers to leave China, but they spread across a large part of the Southeast Asian mainland, settling in Laos, Thailand, southern Burma, and Cambodia. The Viet and Tibeto-Burman migrations happened a little over two thousand years ago, just recently enough for us to know why they moved; if they had stayed, they would have been absorbed into the growing Chinese empire. You will remember we covered the Viet migration in Episode 4, the Tibeto-Burman migration in Episode 5, and came back to look at the nations they created in Episodes 8 and 9.


The final great migration in Southeast Asian history was the migration of the Thai peoples. I have hinted at this event several times in the past; now it is time to hear some details, and learn how the two present-day nations in the middle of the Southeast Asian mainland, Thailand and Laos, got started.


We first hear about the ancestors of the Thais in the first millennium A.D., when they lived in south China, near the upper Yangtze River, in the modern provinces of Guangxi, Guizhou, Hunan, and Yunnan. If they ever lived anywhere else, like on the North China plain, they left before anybody in the region could read or write. Anthropologists have noted that in skin tones and facial features, the Thais look enough like the Khmers and Burmese to suggest they are distantly related; perhaps in prehistoric times, the Thais, Mon-Khmers, Tibeto-Burmans and Viets all had a common ancestor.


At this point I need to clear up one item that might be confusing. Scientists and historians tracing the origin of the Thai peoples will spell the name T-H-A-I when they are in Thailand, and T-A-I when they are anywhere else, like south China. Aside from their location, we are talking about basically the same people, just as how we don’t call the Viets “Vietnamese” until they settle in present-day Vietnam. Later on we will see that the name “Thai” spelled with an “H” also means “free man” in the Thai language, so in that sense, Thailand’s name really means “Land of the Free.” How about that? I bet you thought only US citizens called their country the Land of the Free!


From the time they first appeared, the Thais were a heterogeneous bunch, divided into several tribes or ethnic groups. In present-day Thailand itself, there are no less than thirty distinct Tai groups, making up 85 percent of the country’s population; the rest are mostly Mons and Malays, descendants of the peoples who moved into Thailand before the Thais did. The reason for Thai diversity is the basic nature of early Tai society. Often a group of Tai villages would band together under one prince to form an alliance called a muang. Most muang were temporary, lasting just long enough to win a war or solve a specific problem, but a really successful alliance would stay together for years. Also, it did not take much to get the Thais to migrate, and whenever they were dissatisfied a prince would take his muang and move somewhere else. Finally, population pressure could cause migrations. For example, a prince would want his sons to have as much land as he did, so he would make his youngest son heir to the original territory and take the other sons with him as he went forth to conquer new lands for them to have. This process tended to fragment Thai society into many smaller ethnic groups, because transportation and communication are difficult in a land largely made up of mountains and jungles.


One more factor was the way the Thais treated the previous inhabitants of the lands they moved into; they enslaved them, rather than killing them or driving them away. Because the Thais were spread out over a large area, sharing their land with non-Thais, they were usually an ethnic minority in their own country, even as late as the year 1350.


In Episode 5 we looked at Nanzhao, a kingdom in China’s Yunnan province. To refresh the listeners’ memory, we used to think the rulers of Nanzhao were Thais, but now it appears more likely they were Tibeto-Burmans. Even so, from the Thai point of view, Nanzhao played a valuable service. As long as it stood as an independent state, Nanzhao kept the Chinese from becoming too strong, below the upper Yangtze River, and thus the Thais were saved from being conquered by the Chinese at this early date. If China had conquered Yunnan sooner, the Thais might have lost their identity, and become just another Chinese-speaking group.


We noted in the last episode that Nanzhao fell to a Mongol invasion in 1253, which captured Nanzhao’s capital, Dali, but long before that date the Thais began moving out of the area, in search of greener rice fields. We also saw previously that one of the Thai tribes, the Shans, headed south as early as the tenth century, and settled in what is now eastern Burma. The Thais did not document their migration because it came as a trickle, not as a flood. Instead of a whole lot of people moving at once, like when the Americans loaded their covered wagons and went west in the nineteenth century, the Thai migration was a few people moving at a time, going from China to the lands south of it. Moreover, when they settled in an area already claimed by an existing nation, like the Bagan and Khmer Empires, the process was so gradual that the ruling god-kings did not even notice, and thus they did not report the migration, either.


Besides the Shans, the Thai tribes included the following:


1. The Zhuang. These are the Thais who stayed in south China after Nan Zhao fell. Today they are concentrated in the province of Guangxi, in fact, Guangxi’s full name is the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. You may have seen pictures of the amazing limestone mountains around the city of Guilin, which take on strange shapes and look like they are made of melting wax. That’s where the Zhuang live. Currently there are about 18 million Zhuang, so while they are never in the news, they are the largest ethnic minority in modern China, outnumbering more visible minorities like the Tibetans, Mongolians, and Uighurs.


2. The Ahom or Assamese, who have been the dominant group in northeast India since 1228.


3. The White Thai, the Red Thai, and the Black Thai, who stayed in the highlands and derived their names from the main color of their clothing.


4. The Lao, who settled the Khorat Plateau and the upper Mekong valley. Of course, these are today’s Laotians, but in fact, today there are more Lao living west of the Mekong River, in present-day Thailand, than there are living in Laos. This arrangment works because the Lao are in fact a Thai tribe; even now there are few differences between the Lao and the Thais. Sometimes I hear the Lao in Thailand referred to by another name, Isaan. For example, there used to be a restaurant in my home town called Isaan Baan, that specialized in northeastern Thai cuisine.


5. Last but not least, a tribe called the Small Thai settled in the heart of modern Thailand, the Menam or Chao Phraya valley. Don’t be fooled by the name; for this narrative, they would become the most important tribe of all, because as we saw in past episodes, river valleys are prime farmland in Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese succeeded because they had a river valley, the Khmers succeeded because they had a river valley, the Burmese succeeded because they had another river valley, and now the Thais would have a river valley to call their own. Actually they had two river valleys, if you count the part of the Mekong claimed by the Lao.


Wherever they went the Thais became mercenaries as well as settlers. In their new homes they discarded whatever culture they had learned from the Chinese up to this point, since it was now a symbol of oppression. In its place they learned Theravada Buddhism from the Mons, the arts from the Khmers, and developed an alphabet based on the scripts of both. Veteran listeners will also remember how we described Southeast Asian states as Mandalas, a situation where each kingdom was really a patchwork of self-governing principalities and tributary provinces owing allegiance to a great king. Well, the Thai muang system was a lot like the Mandalas, so the Thais had no problem learning it. In the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Thais would set up the most complicated Mandalas of all, with four power centers — Chiangmai, Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and Luang Prabang — existing at the same time, so it isn’t always clear how many kingdoms the Thais actually had. Indeed, the last remnant of the old Dvaravati kingdom, from Episode 3, was now called Lavo or Lopburi, and it held the mouth of the Menam River until 1388, as a vassal state of the Thais.


Lan Na and Sukhothai


As long as the Khmers and Burmese maintained strong empires, the Thai newcomers were no threat. But when those empires weakened after 1200, the Thais found a vacuum they could fill. In several places along the Menam River, Thai mercenaries revolted, and set up independent muang or city-states in place of Khmer rule.


It is at this point that we begin to see the word Siam, Thailand’s official name before 1939. We think it comes from the Sanskrit word Syama, meaning “dark” or “brown.” The names of two Thai tribes, Shan and Ahom, appear to be variations of the same word. Thus, when the Thais established their own country, neighbors like Vietnam would call it “Syam,” spelling the name either with an “I” or a “Y,” and the Chinese would call it “Xian.”


According to the French historian George Cœdès, quote, “The Thai first enter history of Farther India in the eleventh century with the mention of Syam slaves or prisoners of war” in Champa epigraphy, and “in the twelfth century, the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat” where “a group of warriors” are described as Syam. Additionally, “the Mongols, after the seizure of Dali on January 7, 1253 and the pacification of Yunnan in 1257, did not look with disfavor on the creation of a series of Thai principalities at the expense of the old Indianized kingdoms.” End quote.


Two Thai states were more important than the rest. One was called Sukhothai, from the Sanskrit Sukha Udaya, meaning “Dawn of Happiness,” and it was founded around 1238 on the upper Menam. The name of the other state, Lan Na, means “One Million Rice Fields”, and it was farther north on the same river. Lan Na’s first ruler, Mangrai, enjoyed a long reign, from 1259 to 1318, and was an excellent monarch; he defeated and conquered several rival muang around him and made his kingdom both civilized and powerful. The nearest rival was Haripunjaya, the Mon state that had dominated northern Thailand previously; he conquered its capital, Lamphun, in 1292. He even defeated the Mongols when they invaded Lan Na, in 1296 and 1301; now that wasn’t easy! After making a few counter-raids of his own into China, Mangrai sent elephants and other gifts to the court of the Great Khan, and Mongol-Thai relations were fine after that. In 1296 he founded an impressive new capital, Chiangmai, and the kingdom of Lan Na is usually referred to as Chiangmai after this.


After Mangrai’s reign ended, his successors quarreled over the Chiangmai throne for eleven years, from 1318 to 1329. By the time stability returned, the southern kingdom of Sukhothai had clearly become the leader among the Thai states, so Sukhothai is the state we will call Siam from now on.


The first two kings of Sukhothai are obscure, all we know about them are their names. However, the third king was a multi-talented monarch named Ramkhamhaeng, also called Rama Khamheng, or Rama the Brave). He began his reign in 1279, and under him Sukhothai grew from just another muang into a “super-muang”; most of Malaya, Laos, eastern and central Thailand came under his rule, and he also made vassals of the Mons in Burma. Ramkhamhaeng was a fearless warrior, but most of the time he did not have to fight; his reputation went ahead of him and caused most enemies to submit without a battle. On the other hand, he showed his diplomatic skills in 1294 and 1300, when he went in person to Beijing, and paid tribute at the court of the Great Khan. This move allowed Siam to escape the Mongol raids that fell upon the rest of Southeast Asia, and since that time, the Thais have been masters of diplomacy.


Besides being first in war and first in peace, Ramkhamhaeng also claimed to be the inventor of the Thai alphabet. Whether or not this is true, the oldest known inscription in the Thai language was written by him. Dated 1292, it portrays Sukhothai as a rich and happy state, active in trade, and governed by a paternal monarch; taxes were modest, all citizens (both Thai and non-Thai) were treated with equal justice, and everyone followed Buddhism. Allowing for some exaggeration of the country’s virtues, the picture presented still shows how remarkably different Siam was from Cambodia, where the Khmer god-kings demanded much in labor and taxes to support themselves and a religion that had little relevance to the ordinary person’s life. One of the universities in present-day Thailand is named Ramkhamhaeng University, in honor of the king’s intellectual achievements.


On the page where this episode is posted, I shared a picture of the so-called Ramkhamhaeng stela, the stone containing this inscription, and a link to a webpage where the whole inscription has been translated into English. Check it out if you want to read for yourself what the king said.


King Ramkhamhaeng was able to be a good ruler, warrior, diplomat and patron of Buddhism and the arts–all at the same time. Unfortunately it’s not clear how long he ruled; my sources disagreed on whether his reign lasted until 1298 or 1317. The kings after him were not so gifted, showing that talent is not hereditary. His son, Lo Thai, devoted his energy to Buddhism and neglected everything else. Under him it became difficult to rule the kingdom from a capital that was far removed from the centers of agriculture and population. As you might expect, the lands with most of the farms and most of the people were far downstream, where the Menam River runs into the Gulf of Thailand. Many muang on the kingdom’s periphery seceded, claiming that their submission to Ramkhamhaeng was now null and void. One of these local princes, Rama T’ibodi I, revolted and founded a new capital, Ayutthaya (also called Ayuthia or Ayudhya), on the lower Menam. Ayutthaya’s name comes from Ayodhya, the birthplace of the hero Rama in Hindu mythology.


The fifth ruler of Sukhothai, Li Thai, acted more like a monk than a king. He recognized that Rama T’ibodi was a superior leader, and submitted to his authority in 1350. That marked the beginning of Siam’s Ayutthayan era, a time future Thais would regard as a golden age.


Ayutthayan Siam


The first king of Ayutthaya, Rama T’ibodi I, did much to make his kingdom the strongest on the Southeast Asian mainland. From the Mons he took the southernmost part of present-day Myanmar; this area used to be called the Tenasserim coast, now it is called the Tanintharyi Region. He also extended his power into most of Malaya, and began to carve up the Khmer empire. At home the country’s law code was revised. But many problems were left for Rama T’ibodi’s successors to solve. The most persistent of these was the king of Sukhothai, who now wanted the independence that his predecessor had so cheaply surrendered in 1350. From 1371 to 1438 Ayutthaya had to direct a northern campaign against Sukhothai almost every year. Ayutthaya’s chief rival, Chiangmai, supported Sukhothai.


At home there was an almost constant struggle for control of the throne. Without an established formula for succession, any member of the royal family could become king. Many of the early Ayutthayan monarchs were deposed or murdered as a result.


The next important king, Boromoraja II, ruled from 1424 to 1448. He was the third son of the previous king, and never expected to inherit the throne himself, but both of his elder brothers killed each other in a duel fought on elephants. Boromoraja finished the long war with the Khmers that his ancestors had started, by capturing and looting Angkor in 1431. Instead of rebuilding their glorious capital, the Khmers abandoned it to the jungle, and moved their court to the neighborhood of Phnom Penh. A Khmer king continued to rule from there, but tribute was paid to Siam for most of the next four centuries. The Khmer Empire was ruined; never again would Cambodia be more than a third-rate power.


Sukhothai was next on Boromoraja’s list. When he took the city in 1438, he made its submission permanent by making his son, the future king Trailok, governor of the city. But by no means was the northern conflict ended. Now Sukhothai became the object of aggressive attacks by its former ally, Chiangmai. The Siam-Chiangmai conflict persisted, with a few breathing spells, for the rest of the 15th and early 16th centuries. It was a stalemate because Siam had the advantage of numbers while rugged Chiangmai had extremely defensible terrain.


The greatest ruler of 15th-century Siam was Borommatrailokanat, usually called Trailok for short. He ruled for forty years, from 1448 to 1488. The ongoing war with Chiangmai occupied so much of Trailok’s attention that in 1463 he moved the capital of Siam to the northern city of Phitsanulok, so he could personally direct Siamese armies; the capital stayed there for the rest of his reign.


However, Trailok’s main accomplishment was a complete overhaul of the government. This meant dividing the central administration into five departments (interior affairs, the capital city, the royal household, finances, and agriculture), with appointed, not hereditary officers in charge of each. New laws determined the social status of everyone and the amount of land that could be owned, ranging from 4,000 acres for the highest official to 10 acres for the ordinary free man. Since government workers were not paid salaries, this system also designated how much income they could receive. There was plenty of land for everybody at this time, so nobody was in danger of starvation. In the courts, fines and punishments were made proportional to the status of the plaintiff. The purpose of the whole system was to regulate natural human inequality for the sake of the proper functioning of society.


Court ceremonials were greatly expanded, borrowing some ideas from the Khmers. The current version of these ceremonies are described in a 718-page book, The Royal Ceremonies of the Twelve Months, which was written in the late 19th century. To resolve the question of succession, every member of the royal family was ranked by his relation to the current king; if a family member was removed from royal descent by more than five generations, he was declared a commoner and no longer eligible for the throne. King Trailok also appointed a second or vice-king, called an Uparat (heir apparent), so the people would know who their next king would be long before he actually took the throne.


Lan Xang


Before the Lao settled on the Khorat Plateau and the upper Mekong valley, Laos was a remote backwater, not a center of civilization. It is easy to understand why; aside from the Mekong valley and the Plain of Jars, the whole countryside is jungle-covered mountains. In addition, Laos does not have access to the sea; today it is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia. In a part of the world where most people love seafood, it sucks if you cannot go to the beach.


The early nations of Funan, Dvaravati, and Zhenla had claimed Laos, but they all administered it from the southernmost part of the territory, usually in Champassak province. Later the Khmers also claimed the territory, and the kingdom of Champa was near enough to dispute that claim. A town in the north, Muang Sua, is reported to have had a local king as early as 698, but we don’t know his nationality before 1271, when a ruler named Panya Lang founded a new dynasty. The kingdom builder that we will soon meet, Fa Ngum, was a member of this dynasty, so we know that the Lao were effectively independent in the late thirteenth century, if not sooner.


Before I go on, I should say a few words about the Plain of Jars; that name must sound strange to those of you not familiar with Laotian geography. The Plain of Jars got its name from thousands of huge, stone urns that dot the landscape. I posted a picture of one of these urns on the page that goes with this episode. No one knows who made the stone jars, or what kind of tools they used to shape them. Archaeologists and historians believe that an iron age culture lived here between 500 B.C. and 200 A.D., and they cremated or buried their dead in the jars, because human bones have been found in some of them, but not everyone is convinced; one local legend asserts that the jars were drinking mugs for giants. The Plain of Jars has strategic value for its tin and iron deposits, and because it is the only significant piece of flat land in northern Laos.


Several battles were fought over the Plain of Jars between 1964 and 1973; I plan to talk about that in a future episode. Because American planes dropped millions of bombs on Laos during the war, and because we know a lot of those bombs landed on the Plain of Jars without exploding, only a few sites on the plain are safe to visit, and at the rate Laotian minesweepers are going, it may take the rest of the twenty-first century to locate and remove all the bombs.


Back to the narrative. Lao legends about the origins of their kingdom begin with the birth of a prince, Fa Ngum, in 1319. His grandfather, Souvanna Khampong, was the king of Muang Sua, and his father, Chao Fa Ngiao, was the crown prince. When Fa Ngum was a boy, he was sent to Cambodia, possibly as a royal hostage to insure his grandfather’s good behavior. He lived in Angkor as the adopted son of King Jayavarman IX, and was given a Khmer princess, Keo Kang Ya, as a wife. This happened to be the time when the old Indian culture was dying out in Cambodia; Jayavarman was the last Khmer king with a Sanskrit name. In fact, Fa Ngum’s wife would be credited with introducing Therevada Buddhism to the Lao people, who had been animists previously. In 1343 Souvanna Khampong died, and a struggle to succeed him began. Six years later, Fa Ngum was given a Khmer army of ten thousand men so he could take the crown of his grandfather. We saw in Episode 7 that the Khmer Empire overextended itself in the early 1200s, so this army would not be reconquering a land that the Khmers had claimed previously; rather, it would be used to establish a friendly state on the north side of Angkor, in an area the Khmers could no longer control by themselves.


First, Fa Ngum conquered Champassak in southern Laos, then working his way up the Mekong River, he conquered Xiengkhouang on the Plain of Jars, and finally, he captured Muang Sua. His uncle, the current king, committed suicide to escape being captured, and Fa Ngum was crowned the new king in 1353. Because war elephants were the strongest weapon available in Southeast Asia before the introduction of gunpowder, Fa Ngum threw a scare into his enemies by naming the new kingdom Lan Xang, meaning “A Million Elephants.” To show that Buddhist clergymen were on his side, he also introduced a statue of the Buddha, made of an alloy of bronze, silver and gold, and named the Phra Bang. This image was probably made in Cambodia, but word went around that it was really cast in Sri Lanka, the homeland of Therevada Buddhism, which made it more impressive. Because of the Phra Bang Buddha, Muang Sua was renamed Luang Prabang, and the Laotian royal capital has gone by that name ever since.


Fa Ngum devoted the rest of his reign to enlarging the state. In 1357 he took Vientiane, a city which had opposed him previously; in that way, the city that is now the capital of Laos was brought into the kingdom. He also took the Khorat Plateau from Siam in the same year, making Lan Xang twice as big as present-day Laos. Now the kingdom was considered an equal by older neighbors like Siam and Vietnam. However, the internal balance of power was delicate, and Fa Ngum himself was deposed by one of his ministers in 1373, because his wars demanded too much from his subjects; they also complained that he took the women of the kingdom for his harem as frequently as he conscripted the men as soldiers. His son, the next king, called himself Samsenthai, a name which meant “King of 300,000 Thai”; this was considered a declaration of independence from the Khmers, because the king was announcing that he only cared for his Lao and Thai subjects, and not for the Khmers who still claimed to be the overlords of Laos.


Samsenthai was both a very capable and a long-lived ruler; his reign lasted from 1373 to 1416. However, the next king, Lan Kham Daeng, only ruled for twelve years. His reign happened to take place during the period when China’s Ming dynasty occupied Vietnam, which we covered in Episode 8. In 1421 he sent an army of 30,000 men and a hundred elephants to aid the Vietnamese, but for reasons unclear to us, they fought on the side of the Chinese instead. After the king’s death, a period of interregnum followed. No less than seven kings rose and fell between 1428 and 1438; all of them were puppet monarchs elevated, removed and assassinated by a queen who is only known to us by her titles, Maha Devi or Nang Keo Phimpha “The Cruel.” After the fall of the seventh king, the queen appears to have ruled in her own right until 1442, making her the only female monarch in Laotian history. Her brief reign ended when she was deposed and drowned, but the interregnum continued until 1456, because the man considered the rightful king, a governor of Vientiane named Chakkaphat Phaen Phaeo, refused to be crowned for fourteen years.


After he finally accepted the crown, Chakkaphat managed to rule for a generation, and was then undone by, of all things, a white elephant. At some point in the 1470s, a white elephant was captured and brought to the king, because a white elephant, whether it was albino or just light in color, was considered a powerful divine symbol all over Southeast Asia; whoever owned one was considered a very special person. This made Le Thanh Tong, the emperor of Vietnam, jealous; after all, he had just broken the power of Vietnam’s old enemy, Champa, so didn’t that make him the most special ruler of all? Therefore, Le Thanh Tong requested that some hair from the elephant be sent to him as a gift, and the Lao, offended by this request, sent him a box of elephant dung instead. Very funny, Chakkaphat! The Vietnamese emperor wouldn’t take crap from anybody — literally! — and this became the excuse for him to invade Laos. In 1478 a Vietnamese army captured Luang Prabang, forcing the king to flee. A son of the unfortunate king, Souvanna Banlang, managed to regroup the the scattered Lao forces and liberate the country. Instead of taking his throne back, Chakkaphat abdicated, since he didn’t really want to be king anyway, and Souvanna Banlang became the next king. The Vietnamese were defeated badly enough to follow a policy of good relations with Lan Xang for the next two centuries.


Meanwhile, Lan Xang’s western frontier remained peaceful during the fifteenth century, thanks to some political marriages with the royal families of both Chiangmai and Siam. That period of calm ended in the 1530s, when the Lao king at that time, Phothisarat, got involved in the on-and-off war between Siam and Chiangmai, because his mother was a Chiangmai princess. This prompted an invasion of Laos by Siam, which he beat off in 1540. Then in 1543 the last king of Chiangmai died childless, so Phothisarat, being a relative, promptly claimed the empty throne. So did Siam, and so did a Shan prince named Mekut’i. Lan Xang won the first round, and Phothisarat placed his son, prince Setthathirat, on the Chiangmai throne in 1546. However, the Laotian king died only thirteen months later, and Setthathirat had to hurry back to Luang Prabang to claim his father’s throne before somebody else did. That gave Siam and the Shans a second chance. All three states were fighting over Chiangmai when a revived Burma entered the game, and — spoiler alert! — conquered them all.


Okay, that’s all for this episode. If you think the Thai-Lao squabble is getting out of hand, well, to quote Bachman Turner Overdrive, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” I don’t like leaving you in suspense, but we will have to continue the story of this conflict another time. The 1540s is well past the end of the Middle Ages, and before we continue our narrative into the modern era, I have to tell you about two very important groups of people that showed up while the Middle Ages were transitioning into modern times. The first group is the Moslems, and because several of today’s Southeast Asian nations either have predominantly Moslem populations, or are under pressure from Islamic groups, the time has come to share the story of how Islam came to the region; that will be the main topic for the next episode. The second group is the Europeans, and now that they have found their way to the lands they called “Farther India,” things will really get interesting. And after we are done with all that, then we can return to the conflict on the Southeast Asian mainland, and see what happens after the Burmese get involved.


And now as usual, I will finish with a few reminders. If you like what you heard, consider making a donation to support this podcast, using the Paypal button on this episode’s page. And if you listen to this podcast on iTunes, consider writing a review, so others will be encouraged to listen, too. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!