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For 417 years the kingdom of Ayutthaya was the dominant power and the capital Ayutthaya one of the most important metropolises. At these time Ayutthaya was filled with hundreds of monasteries and several canals and waterways which served as roads.

Ayutthaya offered a variety of geographical and economic advantages in the mediaval age. Not only is Ayutthaya at the confluence of three rivers, plus some canals, but its proximity to the sea also gave its inhabitants an irresistible stimulus to engage in maritime trade. The rice fields in the immediate environs flooded each year during the rainy season, rendering the city virtually impregnable for several months annually. These fields, of course, had an even more vital function, that of feeding a relatively large popula tion in the Ayutthaya region. Rice grown in these plants yielded a surplus large enough to be exported regularly to various countries in Asia.

By the 15th century, Ayutthaya had established a firm hegemony over most of the northern and central Thai states, though attempts to conquer Lanna failed. Ayutthaya also captured Angkor on at least one occasion but was unable to hold on to it for long. The Ayutthaya kingdom thus changed, during the 15th century, from being a small state primus inter pares among similar states in central Thailand into an increasingly centralized kingdom wielding tight control over a core area of territory, as well as having looser authority over a string of tributary states.

Thai society during the Ayutthaya period was trictly hierarchical. There were, roughly, three classes of people, with the king at the very apex of the structure. At the bottom of the social scale, and the most numerous, were the commoners (freemen or phrai) and the slaves. Above the commoners were the officials or "nobles" (khunnang), while at the top of the scale were the princes (chao). The one classless sector of Thai society was the Buddhist monkhood, or sangha, into which all classes of Thai men could be ordained. The monkhood was the institution which could weld together all the different social classes, the Buddhist monasteries being the center of all Thai communities both urban and a gricultural.

The Ayutthaya kings were not only Buddhist kings who ruled according to the dhamma (dharma), but they were also devaraja, god-kings whose sacred power was associated with the Hindu, gods Indra and Vishnu. To many Western observers, the kings of Ayutthaya were treated as if they were gods. The French Abbe de Choisy, who came to Ayutthaya in 1685, wrote that, "the king has absolute power. He is truly the god of the Siamese: no-one dares to utter his name." Another 17th century writer, the Dutchman Van Vliet, remarked that the king of Siam was "honoured and worshipped by his subjects more than a god.

The Ayutthaya period was early Thai history's great era of international trade. Ayutthaya's role as a port made it one of Southeast Asia's richest emporia. The port of Ayutthaya was an entrepot, an international market place where goods from the Far East could be bought or bartered in exchange for merchandise from the Malay/Indonesian Archipelago, India, or Persia, not to mention local wares or produce from Ayutthaya's vast hinterland. The trading world of the Indian Ocean was accessible to Ayutthaya through its possession, for much of its 417-year history, of the seaport of Mergui on the Bay of Bengal. This port in Tenasserim province was linked to the capital by a wild but ancient and frequently used overland trade route.

The Chinese, with their large and versatile junks, were the traders who had the most regular and sustained contact with Ayutthaya. Containing merchandise from all corners of Asia, the thriving markets of Ayutthaya attracted traders from Europe. The Portuguese were the first to arrive, in 1511, at the time when Albuquerque was attempting to conquer Melaka (Malacca). They conclu ded their first treaty with Ayutthaya in 1516, receiving permission to settle in Ayutthaya and other Thai ports in return for supplying guns and ammunition to the Thai king. Portugal's powerful neighbor Spain was the next European nation to arrive in Ayutthaya, towards the end of the 16th century. The early 17th century saw the arrival of two northern European East India Companies: The Du tch (V.O.C) and the British. The Dutch East India Company played a vital role in Ayutthaya's foreign trade from 1605 until 1765, succeeding in obtaining from the Thai kings a deerhide export monopoly as well as one of all the tin sold at Nakhon Si Thammarat. The Dutch sold Thai sapanwood and deerhides for good profits in Japan during Japan's exclusion period, after 1635.

The French first arrived in 1662, during the reign of Ayutthaya's most outward-looking and cosmopolitan ruler, King Narai (1656-1688). French missionaries and merchants came to the capital, and during the 1680's splendid embassies were exchanged between King Narai and King Louis XIV. The French tried to convert King Narai to Christianity and also attempted to gain a foothold in the Thai kingdom when, in 1687, they sent troops to garrison Bangkok and Mergui. When a succession conflict broke out in 1688 an anti-French official seized power, drove out the French garrisons, and executed King Narai's Greek favorite Constantine Phaulkon, who had bee championing the French cause. After 1688, Ayutthaya had less cont act with Western nations, but there was no policy of national exclusion. Indeed, there was increased trading contact with China after 1683,and there was continued trade with the Dutch, the Indians, and various neighbouring countries.

Ayutthaya's relations with its neighbours were not always cordial. Wars were fought against Cambodia, Lanna, Lanchang (Laos), Pattani, and above all, Burma, Ayutthaya's powerful neighbour to the west. Burmese power waxed and waned in cycles according to their administrative efficiency in the control of manpower. Whenever Burma was in an expansionist phase, Ayutthaya suffered. In 1569, King Bayinnaung captured Ayutthaya, thus initiating over a decade's subjection to the Burmese. One of the greatest Thai military leaders, Prince (later King) Naresuan, then emerged to declare Ayutthaya's independence and to defeat the Burmese in several battles and skirmishes, culminating in the victory of Nong Sarai, when he killed the Burmese Crown Prince in combat on elephant back.

During the 18th century Burma again adopted an expansionist policy. The kings of the Alaunghphaya Dynasty were intent on subduing the Ayutthaya kingdom, then in cultural and artistic prime. During the 1760's, the Burmese armies inflicted severe defeats on the Thais, who had been somewhat too fortunate and complacent in having enjoyed over a century of comparative peace. In April 1767, after a 15-month seige, Ayutthaya finally succumbed to the Burmese, who sacked and burnt the city, thus putting an end to one of the most politically glorious and culturally influential epochs in Thai history.


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