The main hall of the National Museum in Bangkok has undergone a revamp that, whilst much needed, has deprived it of the scale dioramas modellers and wargamers alike would have waxed lyrical about. Thankfully the Fine Arts Department has had the foresight to preserve the old displays for posterity in a virtual tour available on the world wide web – though I’d like to think that my own pictures will be of use to the more eagle-eyed of readers.
These miniature reenactments of the medieval monarchy’s greatest hits began with the 1238 ascension of Si Inthrathit, a petty warlord who rebelled against Khmer suzerainty to establish the first independent Siamese kingdom at Sukhothai (whose troop types are available in 15mm from Khurasan Miniatures, in case anyone is wondering).
This staid scene setter quickly gives way to a rip-roaring elephant duel, the first of many such vignettes, between his 19-year-old son, Ramkhamhaeng, and the local Khmer governor in 1257.
Ramkhamhaeng’s own reign is believed to have ushered in a golden age of peace and enlightened kingship. The monarch was said to be an approachable sort, and accepted petitions from his subjects in person.
The king even had the time to devise a new alphabet, which was inscribed on stones for distribution amongst the public. That this ever happened is a matter of dispute, with many a left-leaning academic attributing the stone’s progeny to a 19th century king desperate to convince the encroaching colonial powers that Siam needn’t any further civilising.
Equally idyllic was the reign of Ramkhamhaeng’s grandson, Mahathammaracha I, whose piety is reflected not only in his regnal name (“Great King of Dharma”) but in the many temples and Buddhas he had commissioned.
Commoners, on the other hand, had pottery to busy themselves with.
The Sukhothai Kingdom was quickly overshadowed by its rival to the south, Ayutthaya, which became one of the region’s great mandalas throughout the centuries that followed. Depicted here is the city’s founding along the banks of the Chao Phraya River, overseen by King U-Thong.
A city of resplendent temples and high stilted houses, Ayutthaya was a very cosmopolitan place, attracting all sorts of characters, from Persian traders and Japanese ronins to Portuguese missionaries and Dutch soldiers of fortune.
Ayutthaya had its ups and downs, and at one point was subjugated by the Burmese. This state of vassalage was upended in 1583 when a young Siamese prince, Naresuan, declared independence in a quasi-religious ceremony.
The museum’s remaining dioramas are all devoted to Naresuan’s various derring-dos. These included a decidedly ungentlemanly long-distance sniping of a Burmese viceroy, an incident that ranks as one of the most celebrated feats in Siamese military lore.
The warrior king also wasn’t adverse to taking on turbaned baddies on horseback.
It all culminated in a 1592 elephant duel between Naresuan and the Burmese heir-apparent Mingyi Swa at Nong Sarai in modern-day Suphanburi, an event that is commemorated in the province’s seal.