Taksin the Great and the Heroes of Bang Rachan

Thailand - Scott #562 (1970)
Thailand – Scott #562 (1970)

On December 28, 1767, Taksin the Great (สมเด็จพระเจ้าตากสินมหาราช —  Somdet Phra Chao Taksin Maha Rat) or the King of Thonburi (สมเด็จพระเจ้ากรุงธนบุรี —  Somdet Phra Chao Krung Thon Buri) began his reign as the only King of the Thonburi Kingdom. He was a leader in the liberation of Siam from Burmese occupation after the Second Fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, and the subsequent unification of Siam after it fell under various warlords. Taksin established the city of Thonburi as the new capital, as the city of Ayutthaya had been almost completely destroyed by the invaders. His reign was characterized by numerous wars; he fought to repel new Burmese invasions and to subjugate the northern Thai kingdom of Lanna, the Laotian principalities, and a threatening Cambodia. He was executed and succeeded by his long-time friend Maha Ksatriyaseuk who then assumed the throne, founding the Rattanakosin Kingdom and the Chakri dynasty, which rules Thailand to this day. December 28 is observed in Thailand as King Taksin Memorial Day (วันสมเด็จพระเจ้าตากสินมหาราช — Wan Somdet Phra Chao Taksin Maharat); last year, I wrote an ASAD article about Taksin’s life and reign.

Prior to the Burmese–Siamese War of 1765–1767 (ယိုးဒယား-မြန်မာစစ် (၁၇၆၅–၁၇၆၇) in Burmese with the Thai name — สงครามคราวเสียกรุงศรีอยุธยาครั้งที่สอง — translating literally as the “war of the second fall of Ayutthaya”), the young Sin (สิน, meaning money or treasure) had been a Buddhist monk for about three years before joining the service of King Ekatat. He became first deputy governor and later governor of the Tak, which gained him his name Phraya Tak, the governor of Tak.

King Taksin Monument build in 1954 in the center of Wong Wian Yai (
King Taksin Monument build in 1954 in the center of Wong Wian Yai (“the big roundabout”) at the junction of Somdet Phra Chao Taksin Road and Prachathipok Road in Bangkok. Photo taken on September 24, 2013.

In 1764, the Burmese army attacked the southern region of Thailand. Led by Muang Maha Noratha, the Burmese army was victorious and marched on to Phetchaburi. Here, the Burmese were confronted by Thai soldiers led by two generals, Kosadhibodhi and Phraya Tak. The Thai army beat the Burmese back to Singkhon Pass. In 1765, when the Burmese attacked Ayutthaya, Phraya Tak defended the capital, for which he was given the title Phraya Vajiraprakarn of Kamphaeng Phet. He did not have a chance to govern Kamphaeng Phet because war broke out again. He was immediately called back to Ayutthaya to protect the city. For more than a year, Thai and Burmese soldiers fought fierce battles during the siege of Ayutthaya.

Campaigns of the Second Burmese-Siamese War (1765-1767)
Campaigns of the Second Burmese-Siamese War (1765-1767)

In 1767, after dominating southeast Asia for almost 400 years, the Ayutthaya kingdom was destroyed. On April 7, the Burmese sacked the starving city, committing atrocities that have left a major black mark on Burmese-Thai relations to the present day. By late March, the Burmese had dug tunnels to the walls, and mined them. At 4 pm on April 7, several sections of the wall were brought down by the mines underneath, and the Burmese troops supported by artillery fire stormed the walls. The Konbaung Hset Chronicle dates this as Tuesday, 5th waxing of Tabaung 1125 ME, which is April 7, 1767. The attackers breached the walls by sunset, and entered the city. The Siamese fought on inside the city but were eventually overwhelmed. Indiscriminate slaughter followed. Everything in sight was put to the torch. Even images of the Buddha were hacked for the gold with which they were coated.

Ruins at Ayutthaya. Photo taken by Mark Jochim on August 3, 2006.
Ruins at Ayutthaya. Photo taken by Mark Jochim on August 3, 2006.

Tens of thousands of captives were led away to Burma in captivity. Virtually nothing was left of the 14th century Grand Palace, home to 33 kings of five dynasties, or the glittering Sanphet Prasat, used to welcome foreign envoys and state visitors. The King Ekathat was found dead, identified by his brother Uthumphon. The Burmese brought Uthumphon and hundreds of Siamese nobles and members of the royal family to be resettled in Burma. The city of Ayutthaya, far greater than any in Burma, with a population said to rival contemporary London or Paris, was reduced to ashes by the “seemingly unstoppable Burmese military machine.”

The territory was occupied by the Burmese army and local leaders declared themselves overlords including the lords of Sakwangburi, Pimai, Chanthaburi, and Nakhon Si Thammarat. Taksin had cut his way out of Ayutthaya at the head of 500 followers and travelled first to Chon Buri, a town on the Gulf of Thailand’s eastern coast, and then to Rayong, where he raised a small army and his supporters began to address him as Prince Tak. He proceeded to make himself a lord by right of conquest.

 Monument to King Taksin the Great at Wat Khung Taphao (วัดคุ้งตะเภา, literally Temple of the bend of sailing ship watercourse) in Uttaradit Province
Monument to King Taksin the Great at Wat Khung Taphao (วัดคุ้งตะเภา, literally Temple of the bend of sailing ship watercourse) in Uttaradit Province

With his soldiers, Taksin moved to Chantaburi, and being rebuffed by the governor of the town for his friendly overtures, he made a surprise night attack on it and captured it on June 15, 1767, only two months of after the sack of Ayutthaya. His army was rapidly increasing in numbers, as men of Chantaburi and Trat, which had not been plundered and depopulated by the Burmese, naturally constituted a suitable base for him to make preparations for the liberation of Siam.

Having thoroughly looted Ayutthaya, the Burmese did not seem to show serious interest in holding down the capital of Siam, since they left only a handful of troops under General Suki to control the shattered city. They turned their attention to the north of their own country which was soon threatened with Chinese invasion. On November 6, 1767, having mastered 5,000 troops and all in fine spirits, Taksin sailed up the Chao Phraya River and seized Thonburi opposite present day Bangkok, executing the Siamese governor, Thong-in, whom the Burmese had placed over it. He followed up his victory quickly by boldly attacking the main Burmese camp at Phosamton near Ayutthaya. The Burmese were defeated, and Taksin won back Ayutthaya from the enemy within seven months of its destruction. His coronation as the first (and only) king of Thonburi occurred in the new capital city on December 28, 1767.

[url=https://flic.kr/p/21S4KXy][img]https://farm5.staticflickr.com/4593/38635250554_54abe27859_o.jpg[/img][/url][url=https://flic.kr/p/21S4KXy]KingTaksin's_coronation[/url] by [url=https://www.flickr.com/photos/am-jochim/]Mark Jochim[/url], on Flickr
Mural showing the coronation of King Taksin in Thonburi on December 28, 1767.

The 14-month siege of Ayutthaya had been jointly commanded by two generals in the Royal Burmese Army — Maha Nawrahta (မဟာနော်ရထာ) and Ne Myo Thihapate (နေမျိုး သီဟပတေ့). Thihapate had led the northern invasion route from Chiang Mai while Maha Nawrahta led the southern route from Martaban (Mottama). In early 1765, Thihapate with a 20,000-strong force began his operations by starting with the Lao states. The Kingdom of Vientiane agreed to become Burmese vassal without a fight. Luang Prabang resisted but Thihapate’s forces easily captured the city in March 1765, giving the Burmese complete control of Siam’s entire northern border. In October 1775, Thihapate led his army based in Chiang Saen down to Chiang Mai. His army captured Chiang Mai but faced tough resistance by the Siamese forces. Thihapate then invaded Siam via the Chao Phraya valley, down towards Ayutthaya. His forces reached the outskirts of Ayutthaya on January 20, 1766, joining up with Maha Nawrahta’s forces. Around March 1767, Maha Nawrahta died of illness, and Ne Myo Thihapate became the commander-of-chief of the entire operations.

Fort at Bang Rachan Memorial Park in Sing Buri Province. Photo taken on July 19, 2017.
Fort at Bang Rachan Memorial Park in Sing Buri Province. Photo taken on July 19, 2017.

At some point during Thihhapate’s northern campaign, he supposedly laid siege to the village of Bang Rachan (บางระจัน) — located in present-day Khai Bang Rachan (ค่ายบางระจัน) District in Singburi Province — where he met fierce resistance from the Siamese defenders. According to Thai tradition, 11 villagers from Bang Rachan fought the Burmese army when it stopped north of Ayutthaya. They managed to delay them for five months before they were finally defeated. The battle has been commemorated with a memorial park in Singburi and actually appears on the official provincial sea. A ceremony is held in remembrance of the local heroes each year on February 4. This story was also made into two  movies in Thailand. The legacy of the battle has been likened to the legacy of the Battle of the Alamo in the Republic of Texas and, by extension, the place of the Alamo in the military history of the United States: a symbol of determination and heroism against overwhelming odds.

The Burmese chronicles claim the battle never occurred, saying that Thihhapate’s troops  only faced token opposition between Phitsanulok and Ayutthaya. Kyaw Thet, in his 1962 History of Union of Burma, wrote:

Not all the points of this traditional Thai story can be true as the entire northern campaign took just under five months (23 August 1765 to 20 January 1766). The Burmese chronicles do speak of “petty chiefs” stalling the northern army’s advance but it was early in the campaign along the Wang river during the rainy season (August–October). The Burmese general who was actually stationed near Ayutthaya was not Thihapate but rather Maha Nawrahta, whose southern army waited for about a month for the northern army to show up. It appears that the three verified events — petty chiefs resisting Thihapate in the north, Thihapate’s campaign period of five months, and Maha Nawrahta staking out by Ayutthaya — have merged to create this popular mythology.

Entrance to Bang Rachan Memorial Park in Sing Buri Province. Photo taken on December 11, 2010.
Entrance to Bang Rachan Memorial Park in Sing Buri Province. Photo taken on December 11, 2010.

According to Thai tradition, the Burmese northern invasion army led by Ne Myo Thihapate was held up for five months at Bang Rachan, a small village north-west of Ayutthaya, by a group of simple villagers. This Thai version is now an ingrained part of Thai popular culture. The 2000 Thai film Bang Rajan dramatizes the Thai version of events. One of the more iconic images is that of Nai Thong Men, who becomes drunk and furiously rides a gigantic water buffalo into battle against the Burmese.

At the start of their invasion in 1765, The Burmese forces encountered little competent resistance from the Siamese and advanced close to the capital, but refused to attack due to uncertainty regarding the strength of the forces they would have to face. There was much raiding of the surrounding country and, in addition to the general policy which required the submission of the Siamese, they began to demand the unmarried daughters of families as well, a policy which provoked the Siamese people into resistance.

The beginning of resistance and the first notable appearance of Bang Rachan in Thai “history” occurred when a group of Siamese from various villages — notably Sibuathong, Krap and Pho Thale — led by Nai Thaen, Nai Choti, Nai In, Nai Muang, Nai Dok and Nai Thong Kaeo lured a group of Burmese raiders into a forest with the promise of young women and then turned upon them, killing the entire group of twenty. After this, they retreated to Bang Rachan where, we are also told, most of the population of the villages of Mueang Wiset Chaichan, Mueang Sing and Mueang San had fled.

Bang Rachan is recorded as being ideally situated: “A place where foodstuffs were plentiful…a village on high ground and…it was difficult for the enemy to get at.”

Buffalo cavalry display at Ban Rachan Memorial Park in Sing Buri Province. Photo taken on December 11, 2016.
Buffalo cavalry display at Ban Rachan Memorial Park in Sing Buri Province. Photo taken on December 11, 2016.

In addition to its ideal situation geographically and its position as a focus of those fleeing the Burmese, Bang Rachan had at this early point approximately 400 fighting men who elected five leaders amongst themselves and worked on the erection of fortifications. There was also a Buddhist priest, Thammachot, who had been invited into the village monastery where he was held in great veneration by the inhabitants, who believed him to have great knowledge and power with regard to spells, charms and other incantations.

The Burmese leaders camped at Mueang Wiset Chaichan, were aware of the slaughter of their men by the Siamese who had fled to Bang Rachan and sent a small force of about a 100 men to capture them. The Burmese were taken by surprise when they were attacked while resting and were almost entirely wiped out by the force led by Nai Thaen, who had been elected leader of the village.

Photo taken on July 9, 2017
Photo taken on July 9, 2017

News of this victory spread quickly across the country and resulted in many more people coming out of hiding to join the resistance movement, swelling the ranks camped within Bang Rachan to 1,000 fighting men. This amateur force was well organized along the lines of a professional military unit but were considerably disadvantaged by their lack of equipment, especially firearms, although this was countered to an extent by their great faith in the presence of the priest Thammachot and his various magic spells and talismans.

Well aware that he was facing heavy resistance, the Burmese leader at Wiset Chaichanw requested reinforcements before sending another force against the village. He had underestimated them, as they managed to rout a second army of about 500 as well as a third force, again greater in numbers and under a new leader.

A pivotal event occurred during the fourth attack on the village by a force of 1,000 Burmese under Surin Chokhong. This force was not immediately defeated by the Siamese villagers but their commander was killed and after much fighting the villagers retreated. At this point the carelessness of the Burmese appeared once again as they lowered their guard to begin preparing food and caring for the corpse of their commander. Seeing this, the villagers quickly returned to the field and the surprised Burmese force was truly routed and lost most of its manpower due to the determined pursuit by the Siamese villagers. While victorious again, the leader of Bang Rachan, Nai Thaen, was shot in the knee — an event which would have grave consequences for the resistance as it meant he was no longer capable of fighting or leading from the front.

The aftermath of this fourth battle saw both sides receive reinforcements, with Bang Rajan selecting a new leader to replace Nai Thaen — a fighter named Nai Chan who was famed for his ferocity and “bristling moustache”. The fortunes of Bang Rachan remained good under Nai Chan, who saw their forces increase and achieve ever greater levels of organization, and their reputation grow to such extent that the Burmese came to fear them and the raiders had great trouble recruiting troops to send against the village.

Monument to the Heroes of Bang Rachan in Sing Buri Province, Thailand.
Monument to the Heroes of Bang Rachan in Sing Buri Province, Thailand.

After seven attacks and seven defeats, an eighth force, under a Mon commander who had lived in Siam, volunteered to take an army and promised to defeat Bang Rachan. What set this commander apart from the previous Burmese leaders was his knowledge of the land and the Siamese and his lack of arrogance — he did not underestimate the villagers and adjusted his tactics to disadvantage them. He progressed slowly towards the village by building a series of forts along the route and, when faced with the villagers, refused to fight except from within these fortifications.

The lack of artillery was now crippling for the villagers, as they could not destroy the forts built by the Burmese and suffered great casualties from infantry assaults upon the forts. One of the Siamese leaders — Nai Thong Men — became drunk and furious and, upon a water buffalo, took a force of men and attacked the Burmese in what remains one of the iconic tales and images from the legend of the village. He was killed and his men routed — the first time the Burmese had defeated the villagers.

Bang Rachan sent for help from Ayutthaya in the form of cannons they could use against the forts, but the capital displayed a diffidence typical of its strategy throughout the war and refused the request. However, one man, Phraya Rattanathibet, was sent to help them forge their own weapons. Unfortunately for the village, the guns they cast were cracked and useless. Soon after this, Nai Then died of the wound to his knee and the other great leaders, Nai Chan and Khun San died of wounds taken while trying to take the Burmese forts.

The village was by now dispirited and hopeless, and faced a siege by the Burmese in the form of cannon fire, siege towers and tunneling under the village walls. Eventually the village was overrun despite resistance to the end — five months after the first act of resistance and the only notable act of successful opposition by a Siamese force in a war characterized by the failure of Ayutthuya, its professional armies and its Generals.

Map of Sing Buri Province, Thailand

Map of Khai Bang Rachan District, Thailand.
Maps of Sing Buri Province and Khai Bang Rachan District, Thailand.

The historical settlement is located in Khai Bang Rachan District, Sing Buri Province. After the government renovated Khai Bang Rachan (Camp Bang Rachan) in 1966, they decided to establish a new district to commemorate the battle there and to encourage the local citizens. The area was separated from Bang Rachan District and became a minor district (King Amphoe) on February 1, 1972, then consisting of 5 subdistricts. It was officially upgraded to a full district in 1976. A monument dedicated to the battle is situated 13 kilometers southwest of the town on Route 3032.

Two Thai films about the seige at Bang Rachan have been made. One debuted in 1966 starring Sombat Metanee in a role that won him a best actor honors at the “Golden Doll” Awards. The award was personally handed to Sombat by His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The long-horned water buffalo featured in the film died of old age shortly after the film was released and was feted in a lavish funeral ceremony.

Better known is the 2000 film by director Thanit Jitnukul and starring Winai Kraibutr. Bang Rajan was made on a budget of around 50 million baht, which is about four times the cost of other Thai productions being made at the time. It was a box-office hit in Thailand, earning more than 300 million baht. The film was screened at several film festivals in 2001, including the Seattle International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, the Vancouver International Film Festival and the Hawaii International Film Festival. At the Asia Pacific Film Festival, it won for best art direction. It was screened at the Fantasia Festival in Montreal in 2003, where it won second prize for Best Asian Film. Oliver Stone adopted the film and “presented” it  in a limited release in US cinemas.

On November 20, 1970 (the Scott catalogue claims October 25), the Communications Authority of Thailand released a set of four stamps portraying heroes from Thai history (Scott #562-565). Engraved by the Government Printing Bureau of the Japanese Ministry of Finance, 3,000,000 copies of the 50-satang pink and violet stamp portraying the Battle of Bang Rachan were printed while there were one million of each of the other three denominations issued: 1 baht violet and maroon Heroines of Phuket (Thao Thepkassatri and Thao Sri Sunthorn), 2 baht rose and brown Queen Suriyothai riding an elephant, and 3 baht blue and green Phraya Pichai Dap Hak, a Siamese general who fought under King Taksin with a sword in each hand until one was broken. The stamps were perforated 13½.

Provincial Seal of Sing Buri
Provincial Seal of Sing Buri

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