Chapter 2: Some Pre-trip Research


Once we had paid for our tickets and had settled our personal projects, my Person, named Don, began doing research on Thailand - not the normal tourist research of where to go and what to do, what to avoid, what to eat and what not to eat, but historical research instead. (He assumed that the other half of his energy field, named Laurie, often referred to as his wife, would take care of the more practical aspects of the trip, such as 'Is the water safe to drink?') This rough research, based primarily upon travel guides and computerized encyclopedias, immediately dispelled some illusions and confirmed some conclusions that my Person had.

Cultures of ancient Thailand in mainstream of human culture, but not Thai

The idea that the prehistoric culture of Thailand had been a focal point for ancient cultures, especially China, has been validated by respected scholarship.

"World renowned scholar Paul Benedict (author of Austro-Thai Language & Culture) found that modem linguistic theory, which ties numerous key items in ancient Chinese culture to an early Thai linguistic group, taken together with recent archaeological finds in Thailand, enable us to establish South-East Asia 'as a focal area in the emergent cultural development of homo sapiens. It now seems likely that the first true agriculturists anywhere, perhaps also the first true metal-workers, were Austro-Thai speakers.' These proto-Thais seem to have proliferated all over South-East Asia, including the islands of Indonesia, and some may have settled in south and south-west China, later to 're-migrate' to northern Thailand to establish the first Thai kingdom in the 13th century.”[i]

There is evidence of human habitation in the Khorat Plateau and the Mekong River Valley of what is now Laos, Cambodia and northern Thailand about 10,000 years ago. There is evidence that rice was cultivated around 4000 BC in Ban Chiang of this area. (The Chinese of the Yellow River plain were only growing millet at this time.) There is also evidence that bronze metallurgy was being practiced as early as 3000 BC.[ii] (While the Middle East was starting to experiment with the bronze military technology at this time, China was not to see bronze for another 1000 years.)

While substantiating the theory that Thailand was a prehistoric cultural center, it totally invalidated the theory that this same Thai culture had inhabited the since prehistoric times. Indeed the 're-migration' back into Thailand by the Thai people from Southern China didn't really begin in earnest until after the first millennium of the modern era. While perhaps returning to their ancestral homeland, the modern Thai people were relative late-comers to the Southeast Asia political scene. Much had gone on since they had left, of which, they played no part. They had certainly not lived in Northern Thailand continuously since Neolithic times. The Thai people first began re-migrating back into Thailand from southern China in about the 10th century CE, but didn't establish the first kingdom until 1238. No matter what contribution the Thai people made to Southeast Asian culture they did not maintain a continuous cultural presence in Southeast Asia.

Which culture can claim to be ancestors of this prehistoric cultural center? And what happened to their peaceful people? Had they been bullied and absorbed by the surrounding military cultures? Or had they evolved into these hierarchical kingdoms with powerful armies through the natural mechanisms of internal population growth and competition for resources? Unanswered questions that would flit around my Person’s Mind for the time being.

Chiang Mai, political capital of northern Thailand

With these introductory historical images of Thailand in mind, my attention drifted to Chiang Mai, which was our only set destination in Thailand. How did this city fit into the historical framework?

Thailand can be divided into 4 parts, which are somewhat separated geographically. First is Central Thailand dominated by the alluvial plane of the Chao Phraya River and its many tributaries.[iii] Second is Southern Thailand dominated by islands and a connection with the Malay culture immediately to the south. Third is north-east Thailand which is connected with the forest cultures of Laos and Cambodia. It is not quite so cosmopolitan. Fourth is north-west Thailand, where Chiang Mai is located. It has been influenced by Burmese culture to the west.

However more importantly northwest Thailand is connected to Yünnan province in Southern China. Evidently Yünnan province was the center of the Thai state called Nam Chao. This state, while located in the south of modern day China, was not Chinese. It was independent of China until the Mongol conquest of the 13th century.

One of the princes of Nam Chao called King Mengrai first set up a little kingdom in Chiang Rai in 1281 after defeating a post-Dvaravati Mon kingdom, with their capital in modern day Lamphun, very near to Chiang Mai. However he soon moved his capital to Chiang Mai in 1296 replacing a Mon settlement. He developed the city and put an earthen wall around it.

After the Mongols the Thai kingdom of Nam Chao in Yünnan many Thai people moved south into northern Thailand. In the next few centuries Chiang Mai became the northern capital of the Lan Na Kingdom which eventually merged with the kingdom of Sukhothai further south to become the La Nan Thai kingdom. This was the first time the north and south had really been united as a Thai nation.

In 1556 the Burmese captured the city and with it northwestern Thailand. Over 200 years later in 1775 Chiang Mai and the northwest was recaptured by the Thai government from the south. Central Thailand had just thrown off the Burmese rule themselves. In 1800 the King appointed a local lord to rule the city. He built a brick wall around the city and turned Chiang Mai into the trading center of the north. In 1921 a railroad finally connected north and central Thailand commercially for the first time.

Chiang Mai world spiritual center of Theravada Buddhism

Thailand has long considered herself the protector of the most ancient form of Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism. The reasons are practical. Buddhism no longer exists in India. Burma, Ceylon, Cambodia, and South Vietnam were all colonized by the European states polluting their practices with the Western culture of materialism. Thailand alone was never colonized. Tibet and all the northern countries including China, Korea and Japan follow Mahayana Buddhism, which developed centuries after Theravada Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism, literally ‘the greater path’, opened up Buddhism to a wider sector of the population by allowing the worship of a pantheon of gods, and incorporating the doctrine of re-incarnation from Hinduism. Also Mahayana is not as strict. Most importantly, it allows for the Brahman type political structure, with a hierarchy of priests and rulers. (This is a key point that will be dealt with a little later.) However it is evident that Mahayana is a popularized version of Buddhism, which emerged much later.

Theravada Buddhism was nicknamed hinayana, literally 'the lesser path', or ‘the small path’, by the Mahayana Buddhists. Of course the Theravada Buddhists might say that the Mahayana Buddhists are on the corrupted path. Theravada adheres more strictly to the earliest historical principles of Buddhism. It de-emphasizes the ideas of reincarnation, multiple gods, and large religious-political temples. Theravada Buddhism is based around the study of the most complete and earliest set of Buddhist written documents, called the Theravada or Pali Canon.

The Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism

Each Buddhist Canon consists of three baskets of written information, called 'tripitaka'. The first basket, called vinaya, elaborates the rules of monastic discipline; the second basket, called the sutras, contains Buddha’s discourses or lectures - direct quotes from the Buddha; the third, called adhidharma, were commentaries and classifications. Each Buddhist sect had its own complete canon, which differed from the others. For instance Mahayana contains sutras, including Lotus and Pure Land, which aren’t in the Theravada canon. These Buddhist tripitaka are important enough that they have been saved in 4 languages: Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan. While there are fragments of these other early canons - tripitakas, only the Theravada tripitaka is complete. It is referred to as the Tripitaka.

Further the Theravada Canon was written in Pail rather than Sanskrit. This is why it is sometimes referred to as the Pali Canon. For over a thousand years Sanskrit had been the religious alphabet used to record all the spiritual literary works of India, including the Vedas and the Upanishads. It was the written language of Brahmanism just as Latin was the written language of the Catholic Church. In literature the royalty and the priesthood always spoke in Sanskrit, while those of lower rank spoke in Prakrits, a more common language, of which Pali is a branch. Indeed the “Sanskrit scholars of that time regarded them (the Pali writings) with disdain and labeled them Apabhramsa (‘decadence’).”

In some ways the choice of these early Buddhists to express their most sacred scriptures in Pali could have had multiple reasons. First it could have been to broaden their appeal to a larger group of people. They were not primarily interested in the royal and priestly castes as had been Brahmanism. They wanted to extend their influence. Furthermore, choosing Pali set the Buddhists apart from the power structure of the day. Choosing Pali was a way of remaining unpolluted by contact with the old way of thinking expressed in Sanskrit. In choosing Pali as its language, Theravada Buddhism simultaneously broadened their appeal throughout the castes and separated themselves from the power elite to differentiate themselves. This also alienated the elite Sanskrit scholars because they would be forced to read Pali, a distinctly lower class language.

When Mahayana differentiated from Theravada, Sanskrit was readopted as the written language of Mahayana Buddhism. This move reconnected the royal and priestly classes with the top levels of Buddhism. Hence Mahayana Buddhism while attempting to broaden the appeal of Buddhism also was reconnecting with the power structure of the patriarchal hierarchy.

This was another reason that the Theravada Buddhists considered themselves special. Not only was their school of Buddhism based upon the earliest complete collection of Buddhist texts, the Tripitaka, but they had not sold out to the masses and to the hierarchy to broaden their appeal.

The Power Establishment frequently co-opts a popular religion to serve its ends This is when Power merges with Religion to transform it into an instrument of control. Constantine co-opted early Christianity to serve the Roman Empire. The Turks co-opted Islam to wage ‘holy’ wars on their neighbors. The rulers of most countries attempt to co-opt the local religions to serve their political ends. Each ruler prays to his local god before he wages war on his neighbors. On some levels, when the Power Structure of Asia co-opted Buddhism it became Mahayana. This is not bad. It is a natural political mechanism. We shall see more of this dichotomy between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, when we come to Cambodia.

The Thais, as a nation, had always considered themselves the protectors of the more ‘authentic’ Theravada strain of Buddhism on the global level. In the same way the Thais of Chiang Mai considered themselves the protectors of Theravada Buddhism on the national level. Traditionally Chiang Mai had always been an important religious and spiritual center, hosting the 8th world synod of Theravada Buddhism in 1477.[iv] It has nearly as many temples as Bangkok with a tenth the number of people. Further the rest of Thailand had been subject to cultural corruption by its neighbors. The south was too corrupted by the Moslem Malaysian influence. The northeast was still pretty primitive with spirit worship being more prevalent than Buddhism. As a center for international trading Central Thailand was corrupted by Brahmanism as well as the western influence. Isolated in the northwest foothills of the Himalayas Chiang Mai’s Buddhism remained pure - unpolluted by these other cultural influences.

My interest piqued by all this information I couldn’t wait to experience Chiang Mai.

[i]Joe Cummings: Thailand a survival kit: Lonely Planet Guide Book, 1987, Page 9.

[ii]Joe Cummings: Thailand: Lonely Planet Guide Book, 1999, Page 14

[iii] 1998 Grolier Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

[iv] Lonely Planet, 1999, pp. 488-9


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