Decoding the past
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Decoding the past

Explore the Kingdom's rich history at 'Priceless Documents Of Siam'

Decoding the past
The 'Priceless Documents Of Siam' exhibition.

Just as how hieroglyphics on pyramid walls indicate a pictorial writing system in ancient Egypt and how the cuneiform led to the evolution of languages in ancient Middle East, the Ram Khamhaeng Inscription underscores the development of the Thai alphabet during the Sukhothai period. At the National Museum Bangkok, visitors now have a chance to view and learn how to read it.

This long weekend, those looking to indulge their wanderlust can pretend to be treasure seekers and discover the "Priceless Documents Of Siam" exhibition, which is on view until June 30 to mark National Cultural Heritage Day.

It boasts more than 200 historical pieces from the National Library of Thailand, the National Archives of Thailand and the Office of Literature and History, using different materials and techniques to chronicle Thailand's rich cultural legacy and history.

"Everyone who has studied history is acquainted with these records, particularly the Bowring Treaty. This exhibition features significant documents with original content that traces the development of Thai writing, reading and alphabet," said Sutheera Satayaphan, a literature expert at the Office of Literature and History.

"In fact, antique manuscripts like stone inscriptions, samut Thai [folding khoi paper manuscripts] and samut bai lan [palm-leaf manuscripts] are housed at the National Library of Thailand. The National Archives of Thailand has preserved a collection of crucial documents, including letters from the royal family members and official government documents, while the Office of Literature and History has studied and reproduced the original literary works to better educate people."

The exhibition can be divided into six zones, with the entry area serving as a prologue to the timeline of the global evolution of languages, culture and civilisations such as Egyptian hieroglyphics and Ban Chiang three-legged pottery in Thailand.

The Ram Khamhaeng Inscription marks a significant milestone in the development of the Thai alphabet.

To provide more information on the history of Thailand from the Sukhothai period to the political and administrative reforms during the reign of King Rama V, the Insight Siam From The Scripts zone takes visitors back in time when King Mongkut was ordained as a monk and went on a pilgrimage to the ancient town of Sukhothai where he discovered the King Ram Khamhaeng Inscription at Noen Prasat. This siltstone inscription was written in traditional Thai and was designated as a Memory of the World Register by Unesco in 2003.

The transition from the Sukhothai to Ayutthaya eras is visible to visitors. An enormous statue of Phra Buddhatrairattananayok, also known as Luang Pho To, was constructed 26 years before Ayutthaya was declared the capital city, and its splendour continued until the reign of King Naresuan the Great, according to The Ayutthaya Chronicle: Luang Prasoet Aksonnit's Version.

Composed by Prince Dhammathibet in 1736, Nandopanandasutra Kham Luang No.120 is the sole manuscript using the simplified Thai alphabet to reflect the Buddhist influence in the late Ayutthaya period. It recounts a battle between Moggallana and the naga king Nandopananda utilising three different ink colours -- red for Khmer characters, black for simplified Thai characters and gold for important phases.

The Manuscripts Of Urangadhatu narrate the legend of Phra That Phanom with Tham Isan characters, which was formerly used in northeastern provinces of Thailand and Laos. Listed as a Unesco Memory of the World Register last year, it illustrates how people learned to weave together several folktales to build myths honouring their hallowed sites.

Nandopanandasutra Kham Luang No.120 was written by Prince Dhammathibet during the Ayutthaya period.

"This document takes us back on a linguistic journey that began in Pallava, South India, to the ancient Khmer empire and Myanmar. In Thailand, the Northeast used Tham Isan characters, while the Central Region embraced Khmer and the North employed Lanna letters for religious purposes," Sutheera added.

The Manuscripts Of Ramakien Epic Volume 117 were written during the reign of King Rama I to serve as a screenplay for lakhon nai (a traditional court dance drama). It used mural painting techniques to depict each character and their respective roles in each scene.

Another noteworthy item is the Manuscript Of Phra Horathibodi's Chindamani, which was reproduced in 1782 by royal scribes at the Grand Palace. Written in the first year of the Bangkok era, this ancient manuscript on Thai orthography and poetics influenced modern textbooks during the educational reform.

In the Ancient Cartography And Provincial Seals zone, visitors can study how people lived in each region and how the country changed from the Ayutthaya to Rattanakosin periods through historical maps.

Initially, cartography was used for religious purposes. For example, the Kalapana Map (Land Donation Map) of Sathing Phra Peninsula in the Ayutthaya period depicts the areas under Wat Pha Kho's authority. In Phang Yang and Sathing Phra, this pictorial manuscript illustrates 250 locations, 63 temples, 70 villages, 11 ponds and 23 canals that showcase traditional southern architectural styles.

Three Seals Law No.41 was revised during the reign of King Rama I.

Based on European concepts, the first maps during the reign of King Rama V were designed to be used for road construction in Bangkok, the installation of telegraph cables, navigation and maritime defence before expanding to include field surveys to gather topographic data. For instance, the Map of Sampheng Sub-district was made in 1906 to show Bangkok's commercial area in a scale of 1:1000.

The Thai Historical Laws And Treaty Documents zone provides significant examples of how Thai society evolved, how laws were notably transformed and how Siam built relations with other countries during the Rattanakosin era. On display is the Three Seals Law No.41, which King Rama I revised in 1805 to establish a national code law. It was in operation until the legal system was reformed during the reign of King Rama V.

Known as the Bowring Treaty, the original Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between Great Britain and Siam was signed in 1855 by Sir John Bowring on behalf of Queen Victoria, and five Siam plenipotentiaries on behalf of King Mongkut and King Pinklao.

In addition, a copy of the treaty is available for visitors to open and read, encompassing provisions on assurance of friendship, commerce facilitation, judicial matters, criteria for establishing a consulate, zoning for foreigners' habitation as well as rights on land rental or utilisation, merchant ship regulations and customs tariff.

The Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between Great Britain and Siam, signed in the reign of King Rama IV.

Visitors can also find the Slavery Abolition Act and Types of Slaves in Siam, Monthon Burapha (eastern province) and Monthon Phayap (northwestern province), which took effect in 1874 and affected the purchase price for child slaves to be reduced annually as they grew up, ranging from the age of eight to 20. The Act applied to all children who were born to slave parents starting from 1868.

The Beginning Of Printing In Siam zone highlights Siam's shift from traditional writing techniques to cutting-edge printing technology. The first obstetrics medical textbook, entitled Khamphi Khantha Raksa (Treatise On Midwifery), was written by American missionary Dr Dan Beach Bradley who arrived in Siam during the reign of King Rama III.

Later, King Rama IV founded the royal printing house Rong Akson Phimphakan in the Grand Palace with an aim to spread news and legal regulations across the country. There, the Ratchakitchanubeksa (Royal Gazette) was produced and distributed free of charge to various locations every 15 days.

Taking a step further, the Plans Of Civilization zone showcases Siam's modernisation through a sketch of Chakri Maha Prasat Throne Hall, which blends traditional Thai and 19th century European styles. Another highlight is Dusit Palace's Furniture Books, which were created by London's Maple & Co on King Rama V's order.

The Bangkok Recorder was published in 1844.

The journey comes to a close in the Beautiful Memories And Reminiscences zone, where visitors can observe how Western culture was incorporated into everyday Thai society like sending postcards, writing letters, using imported fragrances and smoking cigars.

On view is a collection of postcards Prince Mahidol sent to King Rama VI, correspondence between Prince Damrong Rajanubhab and Prince Narisaranuvattiwongse, and vintage perfume labels with portraits of Rama V.

The "Priceless Documents Of Siam" exhibition is on view in Siwamokkhaphiman Throne Hall, National Museum Bangkok, until June 30. It's open Wednesday to Sunday from 9am to 4pm. Admission is 30 baht for Thais and 200 baht for foreigners. Find out more details, call 02-224-1333 or visit

Ratchakitchanubeksa (Royal Gazette).

Plans for Phya Thai Palace, constructed in 1909.

Postcards from royal family members.

A collection of antique perfume labels.

Kalapana Map (Land Donation Map) of Sathing Phra Peninsula from the Ayutthaya period.

A Koran from 1754.

The Manuscripts Of Urangadhatu recount the story of Phra That Phanom.

The Provincial Seals.

The Manuscript Of Phra Horathibodi's Chindamani was reproduced in 1782.

Traibhumikatha (The Story Of The Three Planets Of Existence).

Sam Kok Volume 96 was one of the first novels translated during the reign of King Rama I.

The Ayutthaya Chronicle: Luang Prasoet Aksonnit's Version captured many important events.

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