The region of Sukhothai was at first a province of the Khmer Kingdom, but the power of the Cambodian governor did not extend very far. Thus, when the Kingdom of Angkor was in decline, two Thai governors were able to stage a successful revolt and declare the independence of Sukhothai (1238). One of these leaders was proclaimed King of the new state.
The Thais today regard the Kingdom of Sukhothai as the first organised state in their history. This view is amply justified, for it is from this time that a Thai national consciousness finds expression in language and writing: the reception of Indian and Chinese cultural influences continued, but with a distinctively Thai character. In contrast to Nan Chao, which was strongly marked by Chinese influence, Thai art and culture developed independent features. There are many legends and tales about the first king of Sukhothai, Sri Intharathitya or Phra Ruang.
Supernatural powers are ascribed to him, and also the deeds of other rulers. It is said that at his command a fishskeleton which had been thrown into the water came back to life and swam away: hence the saying, “he has Phra Ruang’s tongue”, meaning that a person can cause things to happen by mere words.
The earliest document of the new state dates from the reign of Rama Khamheng, a son of Phra Ruang and the third king. About 1270 the story of his accession and an account of the life of the times was engraved on a stone stele which is now in the National Museum in Bangkok. We learn how the young prince saved his father’s life in battle by a bold charge on his elephant, snatching victory from defeat. His father gave him the title of Rama Khamheng (Rama the Brave), and after the deaths of his father and elder brother he became King. The inscription further extols the wealth of the country in fish and rice, and the freedom of the individual (there were no taxes of any description), and declares the king’s concern for the welfare of his subjects.
Complaints could be brought before the King himself sitting in public assembly, and he considered them carefully before giving his judgement. The freedom of trade and industry are mentioned, and we are told that “the King, the princes and princesses, men and women, nobles and chieftains, without distinction of rank or sex, professed the religion of the Buddha”. Certainly not all Thais at this time were Buddhists, but the teaching was strongly supported by the government. In order to have exact instruction in the Theravada Buddhism which had been taken over from the Mons, the King invited Sinhalese monks to his country.
The Sukhothai state attained its greatest extent under Rama Khamheng. Its sphere of influence extended roughly over central Thailand as far as Nakhon Si Thammarat, Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pegu in southern Burma. Soon after the great king’s death it again broke up into a number of small states. Under the last two of the six Kings of Sukhothai the Kingdom became more and more powerless, until in 1365 it became a vassal state of the new kingdom of Ayutthaya.
Although the Sukhothai Kingdom lasted only a relatively short time, it saw the establishment of the Thai nation as the leading people, culturally and politically, of the peninsula. The introduction of writing for the Thai language, the spread of Theravada Buddhism among the population and, not least, the development of a new artistic style, were the foundations on which following generations were able to build and assert their national individuality.