Thai Wars Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Thai kingdoms of Chiang Mai, Ayutthaya, and Sukhothai engaged in a series of rotating battles, punctuated with fluid alliances and alternating rivalries and coalitions. The disputes over kingship and a drive for domination of Siam (modern Thailand) started in the fourteenth century.

Summary of Event

The fifteenth century was a period of unrelenting war in the Thai kingdoms. At various times, the kingdoms of Chiang Mai (in the north), Ayutthaya (south-central), and Sukhothai (center) attempted to conquer one another. A series of fluid alliances pitted these states in a dance of alternating rivalry and coalition. The usual cause was succession—on the death of a ruler, two leading sons would dispute the kingship and seek alliances from other Thai kingdoms, which often enough were ruled by members of their extended family. While these Thai wars are usually identified in histories one by one, in fact they represent rotating episodes in a continuing drive for domination of Siam from the fourteenth century until external threats overrode them. Thailand Chiang Mai Ayutthaya Sukhothai Ramathibodi II Sri Sutham Tilok Trailok Phra Yot Ratana

Throughout this period, Ayutthaya, the strongest of the kingdoms, was also involved in attempts to control the Malay provinces. The consolidation of Islam Islam;Malay provinces early in the century had made that faith a rallying point for Malay identity against the Buddhist Thais. Ayutthaya was unable to make the rich trading port of Melaka, or Malacca, a vassal state (the Portuguese did that in 1511), although Ayutthaya did dominate trade in the lower peninsula. The kingdom grew wealthy by shipping grain south and receiving luxury goods and Indian cotton for the lucrative Chinese trade. Trade Trade;Ayutthaya was a monopoly of the king, who set his own price for anything he purchased before allowing traders to sell what was left.

Ayutthaya amassed a considerable treasury, enabling Ramathibodi to build in 1503 a 50-foot statue of Buddha, encrusted with 378 pounds of gold and the largest such statue in the world at that time. Buddhism;Ayutthaya The kings of Ayutthaya also used their wealth to build a strong military and acquire modern military equipment. The expanding wealth of Ayutthaya allowed for social and cultural changes as well. In the fifteenth century, the amalgam of Mon, Tai, and Khmer influences began to coalesce into what became recognized as Siamese culture, adding to tensions between Ayutthaya and the Lan culture of Chiang Mai.

The Thai War of 1387-1390 Thai Wars, 1387-1390 between Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai marked the start of the long series of conflicts. The Thai War of 1442-1448 Thai Wars, 1442-1448 started after the king of Chiang Mai was deposed by his sixth son, Sri Sutham Tilok, who proclaimed himself king. Another son took the deposed king to a vassal town, where the local governor supported him by enlisting the aid of Ayutthaya, which was eager to extend its power northward. Tilok’s army, however, met his half brother and the governor on the march, killing them both. Tilok employed Lao spies to infiltrate the Ayutthayan army, where they sabotaged the war elephants by cutting off their tails and stampeding them. In the chaos that followed, Ayutthayan forces were routed. Tilok also led small adventures against petty warlords, taking men and cattle for the impending major conflict, but he hoped also to weaken the smaller states on the fringe between the central plain (usually dominated but not controlled by Ayutthaya) and the mountainous redoubts of Chiang Mai.

Three years later, hostilities broke out again, this time in the Thai War of 1451-1456 Thai Wars, 1451-1456 . Ayutthaya remained an expansive power, and after King Trailok succeeded to the throne in 1448, he strengthened his forces and plotted to take Chiang Mai. Tilok opened the door to invasion when he sided with a 1451 insurrection in Sukhothai, which Ayutthaya has subdued into vassalage. A Sukhothai prince asked Tilok for help in regaining Sukhothai independence. Tilok invaded but was driven back, and Trailok pressed his advantage and occupied Chiang Mai the following year. The Laotians then intervened, forcing Trailok back but also compelling the Chiang Mai to defend their territory. They counterattacked against Ayutthaya, but the indecisive Battle of Kamphaeng Phet (1456) Kamphaeng Phet, Battle of (1456) closed the campaign.

Historians believe the next war started in 1461, but in reality, hostilities never ceased. Tilok mounted unsuccessful offensives in 1459 and 1460. The Thai War of 1461-1464 began after a governor, who was an Ayutthaya vassal, defected to Chiang Mai and was named a town headman there. Emboldened, Tilok moved south to Ayutthaya, occupied its vassal state of Sukhothai, and laid siege to Phitsanulok. With his forces drawn south, Tilok was unprepared when China unleashed a surprise attack from the north, so he had to beat a hasty retreat to defend his capital. This marked the first sign that forces outside the region could take advantage of the continuing warfare in Siam. In 1463, Trailok moved the Ayutthayan capital to Phitsanulok to centralize his authority and military control. Nevertheless, Tilok attacked Sukhothai again but was repulsed. At the Battle of Doi Ba (1463) Doi Ba, Battle of (1463) , deep in Chiang Mai territory, the Chiang Mai war elephants drove the Ayutthayan infantry into a swamp and brought the war to a close.

The two kingdoms attempted a diplomatic settlement, but the period after the 1464 cease-fire involved conspiracies and armed clashes. In an odd turn of events, Trailok built himself a monastery and was ordained a monk. His astonished enemies came to the ordination ceremony and provided his robes, which is the highest form of merit for a Thai Buddhist. From his monastery, however, Trailok sent a sorcerer to Chiang Mai. The sorcerer spread dissension in the Chiang Mai court and caused the crown prince to be executed for treason. In 1466, Trailok returned to his throne and sent emissaries to Chiang Mai, but his duplicity was revealed, and the sorcerer-spy was clubbed to death in a sack (the method of execution for a noble or a monk, which kept the executioner’s hands from touching the condemned). Trailok’s diplomats were assassinated on their return trip.

The Thai War of 1474-1475 Thai Wars, 1474-1475 began with an Ayutthayan invasion, but Tilok negotiated a cease-fire; also, his death in 1487 brought five years of peace. Then the Thai War of 1492 Thai Wars, 1492 erupted over the theft of a crystal Buddha statue, stolen from Chiang Mai by an Ayutthayan royal prince who spent some time as a monk. Chiang Mai king Phra Yot invaded and retrieved the statue from Ramathibodi.

Ramathibodi reorganized his army, instituted compulsory military training for all able-bodied males, and modernized the army’s command and staff, who also received a new instructional manual on strategy and tactics. Ramathibodi then signed a peace pact with Portugal, which gave Portugal Portugal;Ayutthayan alliance the right of residence in Siam and the freedom to conduct missionary activities. In return, the Portuguese provided military training, guns, and ammunition. By the middle of the next Thai war, Ayutthaya was producing its own artillery pieces and using Portuguese mercenaries in the field.

The Thai War of 1500-1529 Thai Wars, 1500-1529 was a protracted conflict in which Chiang Mai, threatened by the larger and more powerful Ayutthaya, often took the offensive. King Ratana of Chiang Mai invaded in 1507 and engaged the enemy at Sukhothai, where he was pushed back after an exhausting battle. Ayutthaya pressed its advantage in 1508 and met Ratana at Phrae, where an equally bloody battle forced King Ramathibodi to withdraw. Another Ayutthayan incursion took place in 1510, followed by ongoing skirmishes through the next five years. Ramathibodi took the offensive in 1515, and in the Battle of Lampang Lampang, Battle of (1515) , he routed Chiang Mai and seized a sacred Buddha statue. In the battle, Ayutthaya had the advantage of Portuguese military training and artillery. The final decade of the war consisted of mopping-up exercises, and by 1529, the year Ramathibodi died, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya were firmly under Ayutthayan control. The following year, the Chinese Empire recognized Ayutthaya as the legitimate heir of the Kingdom of Sukhothai.

Tilok died in 1487 and was replaced by his grandson; Tilok’s only son and heir had been executed. The grandson was then deposed in favor of his own thirteen-year-old son. Even with a cultural and religious revival during this period, Chiang Mai went into protracted decline and engaged in a series of wars against Ayutthaya and incursions by tribal peoples on the northern frontier. After 1526, the kingdom fell into disarray, with kings deposed and murdered, and Chiang Mai slowly disintegrated.


The Kingdom of Ayutthaya was consolidated but hardly unified. It declined into a confederation of petty states with self-governing principalities ruled by members of the royal family. Each state had its own army, and each army saw constant fighting with other states. Added to the self-governing states were tributary states of various degrees of loyalty. The king often attempted to maintain a balance among the feuding princes, any one of whom was capable of allying with others to topple him. Trailok tried to stabilize the succession by naming an uparaja, or heir, a tricky situation in a polygamous society. He did succeed in forging a tighter and more loyal administrative system, however, and it is this achievement that is his most significant legacy.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heidhues, Mary Somers. Southeast Asia: A Concise History. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. A comprehensive if concise history of Southeast Asia. Well illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Osborne, Milton. Southeast Asia. 7th ed. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 1994. Focuses on peninsular Southeast Asia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tarling, Nicholas, ed. The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A detailed and scholarly multivolume presentation of the region, with thorough treatment of the peninsular wars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wyatt, David. Thailand: A Short History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. One of the best short histories of Thailand, with good detail on the medieval period and the wars.

1454: China Subdues Burma

1469-1481: Reign of the Ava King Thihathura

c. 1488-1594: Khmer-Thai Wars

1505-1515: Portuguese Viceroys Establish Overseas Trade Empire

1511-c. 1515: Melaka Falls to the Portuguese

1527-1599: Burmese Civil Wars

1548-1600: Siamese-Burmese Wars

1558-1593: Burmese-Laotian Wars

c. 1580-c. 1600: Siamese-Cambodian Wars

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