Thailand, most commonly known as a tropical resort destination, is famously unique for its name. Used in popular cuisine titles, traditional references, and religious practices, “Thainess” is embraced by people worldwide.
However, Thailand was not always the country’s name. The country was once recognized as ‘Siam‘ or ‘Syam‘ – a Sanskrit word adopted from its early rule. But when did Siam change its name to Thailand, and why?
Siam changed its name to Thailand on the formation of a new dictatorship led by Phibun in 1939. The aim was to modernize and emphasize a unique Thai identity. Although the name change took place seven years after Phibun’s new government, it was changed back to its original name once, in between his two-year gap of pure dominance.
The name Siam itself is more than just a simple historical name changed by a man in power. People are often curious about where the name ‘Thailand’ derived from and what pursued Phibun (in full, Luang Phibunsongkhram) as the primary leader to initiate a significant transformation during a struggling rule.
This has a lot to do with cultural change and Thailand’s history of challenging western influence and playing a role in uniting religious and cultural norms within their society.
When Did Siam Become Thailand?
Siam is not only an old name but is also seen as an exonym, a different name outside of its native context.
Uniquely, the term Siam is thought to have come from various theories. The first myth is that Siam is believed to be a Sanskrit word meaning Samaya, which translates to dark and brown. The name comes from the skin color of natives in Siam, who were darker in skin tone compared to the other parts of Southeast Asia.
Another theory is that the word Siam comes from the Pari language of the Indian subcontinent. Here, the term translates to Land of Gold.
The third theory is that Siam belongs to the Mon language of native Thai, translating the phrase to Land of Strangers.
It is often questioned why Thailand became such a famous name, although Siam is what the country was known for to the entire globe for years to come. The Portuguese started to use the name Siam in a global sphere, a unique attribute that brought the country to stardom.
Praise was the name that Siamese people used to pay tribute to their culture and national language. Kings themselves referred to their reigns as Kings of Siam. In the Thai language, Siam was known as Meyong-tai (the land of the Thais)
However, after a long reign as Siam, the early 20th century brought differences in governance. The land of Thailand, which once was claimed from Laos, Malaysia, and Cambodia, was surrendered to the French.
The angry Thai people were frustrated by the political sphere of the country. Moreover, this allowed for the formation of the 1927 radical political party known as “The People’s Party” to be formed.
Led by army officer Phibun, the group was founded in 1932 and led a coup against the King of Siam. Although the monarchy remained safe from harm, Phibun’s party took over the country under a dictatorship in 1938 and formally changed the name from Siam to Thailand in 1939.
The military government justified the name change to represent the country’s majority and move on from the past name that carried on for 800 years.
In 1944, Phibun was forced to resign, temporarily changing the country’s name to Siam. In 1948, the country was permanently named the Kingdom of Thailand. (Source)
Why Did It Change from Siam to Thailand?
The country changed its name from Siam to Thailand for several reasons. Phibun was a leader who enjoyed nationalism and culture.
However, he did not like that the world knew Thailand by a foreign name. To boost the morale of his people, he thought the name Thailand was more suitable for identity. Thai means “free” or “free people.”
In that case, Thailand is known as the land of the free people or the land of the free.
The importance of freedom in slogans is also something other western countries, such as the United States, also go by. Thailand is also known as the only Southeast Asian country not to have been ruled by a western power. (Source)
You can learn more about why Thailand was never colonized here.
How Did the History of Siam Change?
Before, Siam was known as an independent monarchy with a mixture of both Eastern and Western ceremonies.
Siamese was seen as happy people with a couple of modern-day improvements that led to their success.
The country Siam was known for being shaped like the head of an elephant. You might have also heard of Siam in comparison to Western countries such as Italy.
Bangkok was referred to as the “Venice of the East.” Today, the capital is called the Jewel City of Asia.
Laced with canals and waterways, Siamese people built homes on boats as they did on their lands. Floating markets were seen with beautiful front yards; these factors became the main passions of women in the country. The river life was full of vegetables and fruits and a favorite location for the women.
An essential element to note was the evolution of Siamese women. Short hair on ladies was common morale, dragged on by decades of women assaults and army raids. Women were now left to characterize themselves as solid and resilient.
The history of Siam has still significantly impacted what it is now, in the name of Thailand. Religion remains a prominent factor; Buddhism is considered the most critical factor of the country’s identity. Thai people are proud of their faith in philosophy as the doctrine of religion. (Source)
You can learn more about religion in Thailand here.
Siam vs. Thailand: The Aftermath of the Name Change
At the time of the name change, Phibun launched a modernization campaign and promoted Thai culture, language, and education across the region.
The transformation pressured Thai-Chinese relations. The slogan “Thailand for the Thai” was considered anti-Chinese. Moreover, Phibun cut down immigration from China, set up Thai businesses, and limited Chinese studies in educational institutions.
After Thailand allied with Japan during the Second World War, Phibun was forced to resign. Although he returned to power in 1948, Phibun was ousted nine years later. (Source)
Do Thai People Prefer Siam or Thailand as Their Country Name?
Today, most people in the country refer to the country by its new name: Thailand.
However, Siam is known for its historic character. Siam is still a common name used for providing tourists with an exotic look of Thailand, a far-off land it once used to be.
The historical name can be seen used in various locations such as Siam Niramit. These are traditional dances and performances put on by Thai people to showcase their historical evolution. The use of Siam for branding is shared within the country. (Source)
You will also note that even the capital of Thailand, Bangkok, has a unique history and is called by different names. Known in the Thai language as Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, or Krungthep, Bangkok is seen as the City of Angels. (Source)
However, Bangkok has a more symbolic significance and a much longer Thai name. As seen in the famous song Asanee-Wasan Chotikul, a paragraph is used to describe what Bangkok means in Thai.
Nevertheless, the country’s name still carries some controversy today. Even then, Thailand enjoyed support from rulers who noted cultural uniformity and the need for one national structure.
However, others still hope to restore the name ‘Siam’ with the sense that political and religious pluralism still deems the right to exist; people of different beliefs, backgrounds, and lifestyles should be able to coexist together in the same society.
The Land of Smiles
Siam, now Thailand, has a long history of name changes. People from all over the world will remember the country by these two notable names in history. It is also known by foreigners as ‘The Land of Smiles.’
The names of Thailand and its cities all have Thai and English meanings prescribed to suit these values. There is symbolism and cultural importance behind every name being a voice for the people.
With significant influence from the west and Phibun’s need for rich nationality and a unique identity, Thailand’s evolution as a traditional and western power has led to its uniqueness and charm. The influence of western morals and Thai identity stays behind even after Phibun’s period of rule.
As a matter of fact, Phibun’s changes are still widely debated and discussed. He serves as one of the most influential people to have created change in Thailand.
You can learn more about why Thailand is called the Land of Smiles here.
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