Sunday, 18 November 2012

In the year 2555...

Not quite in the words of the Zager and Evans' number 1 song of 1969 'In the Year 2525' (you have to be quite old to remember that!), but this year is the year 2555 in Thailand!

I realise this entry is going to be deadly boring to people not interested in history, so I'm going to type it in green, so if you don't want to read it, that's OK. I became interested in it all, did some research and thought I'd write it all down so I don't forget it. See you in the next entry if you don't read any further....

I had noticed they use a different year here from the last time we came, so decided to find out the background. It's relatively straightforward, but then it becomes very complicated! In Thailand they use two different calendars, the Thai solar calendar and the Thai lunar calendar. The Thai solar calendar is the legal one, the lunar calendar is their religious one, but they are quite different from one another.

The solar calendar is pretty straightforward and works on the same principle as ours, one revolution of the earth round the sun equals one year, but the year number is based on the Buddist era (BE), while ours works on the Christian era (AD). The 'Year 0' in the Buddist Era is 11th March 545BC and is believed to be the date of Gautama Buddha's death. The start date of each year has, however, been changed twice in the recent past, the first change was by the king Rama VI in 1912AD, who moved it to 1st April, then by Prime Minister Phibunsongkhran in 1940AD who moved it to 1st January to bring it in line with our new year. The Thai year is now 543 years ahead of ours, meaning that this year is 2555BE and is the legal year for all official documents.

The lunar calendar is quite different and is based on the movement of the moon round the earth, which takes a little over 29.5 days. A lunar calendar year has 12 months (most of the time), but they have three year lengths. In the standard year (354 days) months have alternately 29 days (a hollow month) and 30 days (a full month), month 1 generally being in December. As the lunar month is a little over 29.5 days, every so often they add an extra day in a year and this is done by making the 'hollow' 7th month into a full month, making that year 355 days. As this doesn't equal a solar year, occasionally they 'repeat' the 8th full month to make that year 384 days long. As the 8th month is repeated, it is still considered 12 months, but that year is called an 'extra month year'. 

The days of the month are also different, dependent on whether the moon is waxing or waning, so a particular day may be called Kuen 5 Kham Deuan 2, meaning waxing 5 on the evening of month 2, or the second day of month 2. Buddist holy days regularly fall on the first quarter moon (8th day or waxing 8), full moon (15th day or waxing 15), third quarter moon (23rd day or waning 8) and last day of lunar month (29th or 30th day or waning 14 or 15).

Confused? So was I!

A brief history of Chiang Mai and Thailand:
Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand is their second city with a population close to 1.5million, but only officially became part of Thailand (then called Siam) in 1933. It was founded and built in 1296 by King Mangrai who fought and drove out the Mon people to create the kingdom of Lanna, which included Northern Thailand, Northern Laos, North Eastern Burma and a little bit of Southern China. He formed an alliance with the king of Siam and the king of Phayao to defend their lands against the Mongol empire and, today a statue stands in Old City Chiang Mai of the Three Kings.
Wat Chiang Man, built in 1296AD by King Mangrai

The original Chedi, supported by stone elephants
On founding Chiang Mai (literally translates as 'New City'), he built Wat Chiang Man, a temple now situated in the Old City, very close to where we are staying, while he watched his new city being built. He remained there throughout his life, apparently being killed in 1317AD by a bolt of lightning in the city square.

Around about the same time, the Thai's, called the Syam by the Khmers of Cambodia, fought back the Khmer's and established their first independent kingdom at Sukhothai in central Thailand, which was later annexed by Ayuthaya in 1376. The Thai kings became very powerful in the 14th and 15th century and became one of the greatest and wealthiest cities in Asia. The kingdom of Siam was described by a Londoner in 1690 as being the greatest kingdom in Asia, London being a mere village in comparison to Ayuthaya. The film 'The King and I' was set in this era.

The northern kingdom of Lanna was increasingly being threatened by the Burmese and in 1556 they captured Chiang Mai and held it for more than 200years. They used it as a base to attack Ayuthaya, attacking it 25 times before eventually succeeding in 1765 and then completely destroying it, from which it never recovered. 

The Thai's under King Taksin retreated to create a new captial at Thonburi, on the west bank of the river opposite modern day Bangkok. From there he launched a counter attack, retaking the entire kingdom and that of Lanna in 1775, Lanna becoming part of Siam, run by a viceroy. 

King Taksin apparently went mad a few years later and was deposed and executed. He was replaced by one of his key generals and became the first of the new and current Chakri dynasty, called after his death King Rama I. He moved the capital over the river and founded Bangkok (which has an exceptionally long formal name!). 

Thailand has never been colonised, unlike its neighbours of Burma by the British and Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam by the French (French Indochina), but it has only hung on to independence by agreements to trade and ceding of some territory. Northern Laos to France, North Eastern Burma and some southern states to Britain becoming part of Malaya. Trading included, sadly, the decimation of their jungles of Teak trees by the British!

All kings up to 1932 were absolute monarchs, but in 1932 there was a revolution that deposed king Rama VII and reinstalled him as a constitutional monarch along the lines of our own system. King Rama VII abdicated in 1935 and retired to Britain, leaving no successor, so his cabinet promoted his 10 year old nephew, Ananda Mahidol, who was studying in Switzerland at the time, not returning until 1945. During the war years the country was effectively run by Prime Minister Phibulsongkhram, who was the person who declared war on the USA and sided with the Japanese. The Thai ambassador in the USA refused to deliver the declaration, however, so technically Thailand was never at war with the USA!

The present king, Rama IX, is the brother of Ananda Mahidol, who was mysteriously shot to death in his apartment in 1946 after returning to Thailand. No-one in Thailand talks of his death! Rama IX was crowned in 1946 and is now the longest serving monarch in the world, just beating our own Queen by 7 years!

Siam was officially changed to Thailand in 1939, by the Prime Minister.

In the intervening years Thailand has been hit by many political upheavals, with a number of coups, resulting in Military dictatorships to democratically elected commoners and lots of corruption. The present parliament was elected in 2008 and there are still some minor uprisings. Generally people regard the king as being a source of stability and he is very well respected. It is, incidentally an offence to publicly say anything against the king, carrying a maximum term imprisonment of 15 years!

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