Ratanakosin Era, Thailand History

The modern period, the Ratanakosin era, begins with the founding of Bangkok as the capital in 1782. Although King Taksin from his capital at Thonburi had led the Thais to a remarkable recovery from the Burmese invasion and had largely reunified the nation, his reign was short-lived.

By 1782, he had reputedly become insane and was overthrown in a coup and executed.

The Commander of the Army, General Chakri, was then popularly proclaimed King, being crowned Rama I and so founding the Chakri dynasty which reigns to this day.

One of his first acts was to transfer his power base across the Chao Phraya River from Thonburi to Bangkok, at the time little more than a customs post and a huddle of Chinese traders' huts.

The reason for the move was partly symbolic as Rama I wished to restore national pride by constructing a city that would recreate the lost glory of Ayutthaya.

During the first three reigns of the Chakri dynasty, Bangkok was transformed from a riverside village into an impressive capital.

The construction of canals effectively turned it into an island city, while the building of the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the other buildings which today constitute Bangkok's major sights successfully reflected material and spiritual wealth.

The pattern of development shifted with the succession of King Mongkut, Rama IV, in 1851. The idea of recreating Ayutthaya was abandoned, along with the nation's introspective stance.

Mongkut had spent 27 years in the monkhood and had proved himself a scholar of considerable attainment. As an enlightened monarch possessed of an intelligent and inquiring mind, he was to set the country on a path of modernization by opening the door to Western influence.

The first major step was taken in 1855 when he signed a mutually favourable trade agreement with Sir John Bowring, envoy of Queen Victoria.

Similar accords with other European countries and with the USA followed in quick succession. In tandem with expanding international trade, the country embarked upon a programme of modernization of far-reaching proportions.

Infrastructure was expanded and developed to meet new needs (notably, roads for wheeled traffic began to replace canals), and the machinery of state was overhauled with ministries organized along European lines.

Art and architecture also began to reflect an interest in things Western, as can be noticed today in Bangkok's several Italianate buildings of the period, such as the former National Parliament.

Mongkut' son and successor, King Chulalongkorn (reigned 1868-1910),furthered the policies of modernization.

He successfully introduced various sweeping reforms, including the abolition of slavery, and broadly adopted European concepts of administration, justice, education and public welfare.

In the following reign, that of King Vajiravudh (1910-25), compulsory education was established, among other develpoments.

On the international front, Vajiravudh, who had been educated in the UK, brought Thailand into World War I on the side of the Allies.

With such fundamental change and material development it was almost inevitable that traditional concepts of power would be questioned.

For centuries Thai kings had been literally 'Lords of Life', but that ended in 1932 when a bloodless revolution changed the system of government to a constitutional monarchy.

The reigning monarch, King Prajadhipok (reigned 1925-35), accepted a fait accompli, though he abdicated to be succeeded by his nephew, King Ananda.

In the present era, Thailand moved slowly and, at times, with difficulty towards establishing and effective democracy.

Since 1932 the constitution has been changed many times, and military coups, successful and abortive, were until recently frequent occurences.

But although the peaceful evolution of popular government has been disturbed, it has not been halted.

Throughout, the monarchy has had a valuable stabilizing effect. After King Ananda's tragic death in 1946, his brother, the present King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, succeeded to the throne.

King Bhumibol has shown himself to be the model of a modern constitutional monarch, both preserving regal traditions and taking an active part in working towards the greater social and economic well-being of his people.

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