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Coins of the realm

An American of Thai citizenship counts the Thai money's history

Publication Date : 22-10-2012


It took two millennia for the country to develop the flat coins and banknotes used in Thailand today. What came before were monetary systems unlike anything used in other countries.

Now Thais can better appreciate the history of the money in use here since the earliest times through to King Chulalongkorn's day with the publication of the book "Siamese Coins: From Funan to the Fifth Reign" by Ronald Jay Cristal.

One of the leading coin experts in Thailand, Cristal, a lawyer from the US, arrived in Thailand in 1969 as a US Air Force judge-advocate based at air bases like in U-tapao and Ubon Ratchathani.

Cristal has since pursued a legal career in Thailand over the past 40 years, specialising in business law, and earned citizenship in the 1980s under the name Ronachai Krisadaolarn.

"I was interested in collecting coins in the US, so when I arrived in Thailand I started studying and collecting Thai coins," he says. "Once you start looking for them, you realise that Thai coins are unique. In the past they didn't look like real money, or even real coins."

Cristal, now a feisty and fit 70, boasts a vast collection of old coins from all periods in Thai history and other unique coins from older eras like the Funan and Srikaset kingdoms. He purchased the coins mostly overseas.

"I got all these coins from shops in England, France, Germany and Denmark. They belonged to diplomats who, when they returned home, brought the coins back, and they got passed down to children and grandchildren, who would find these funny bullet-shaped things and decided to sell them.

"In the 1970s I found various bullet coins, called pot duang, in shops in Germany and Denmark. Coins from the reign of King Rama V were found in England," he says.

Chatuchak Market has a few coin dealers, he notes, but the old coins are mostly counterfeit.

Cristal has studied the history of Siamese coinage through both Thai and English texts, especially an account by an Englishman, Reginald le May, who observed the process of bullet-coin manufacture during the reign of Rama VI between 1910 and 1925.

From one of le May's accounts: "Four men were required. One operated the bellows. The second tended the embers in the furnace. The third weighed out the silver and placed it in a small crucible, while the fourth placed the crucible in the furnace. When the silver was melted, a second worker removed the crucible and poured the molten silver into a wooden block with an elliptical groove, which was covered with a cloth and submerged in a box filled with water."

Cristal displays boxes of bullet coins and others from different eras in Thailand history.

While flat coins were in use in the much older Funan and Srikaset kingdoms, different shapes of silver money evolved with the kingdom of Siam.

The coins that circulated during the first millennium of the Christian Era were produced by four different cultures: the Bengal people of eastern India, the Pyu and Arakan in Burma, and the Mon in Burma and Siam, as well as by "proto-Malays" in Srivajaya and Saleindra.

The weight standards they used derived from the ancient systems of India. The basic unit of weight for coins was the ratti of 0.11 grams. A ratti is the seed of the gunja creeper.

That was superseded in the Sukhothai Period by the baht, tamlung and salung (four salung equal one baht), Cristal explains, while the shapes and sizes of Sukhothai's silver money were influenced by Khmer money. "The word tamlung is actually Khmer."

Cristal's book describes how King Ramkhamhaeng, who ruled Sukhothai from 1275 to 1317, is credited with introducing the first pot duang, the indigenous Thai form of money popularly referred to as bullets or bullet coins. They bore various designs, some depicting elephants, rabbits, seashells and the lotus, sun and moon.

Sukhothai Era inscriptions indicate that cowry shells were used for large purchases of land. Tamlung, salung and baht came along between 1380 and 1410, as the Kingdom of Ayutthaya came into prominence. Many high-quality pot duang were produced along with various tokens for trade and gambling.

"The pot duang in Ayutthaya was hand-made - the artisans cut the silver and banged it together," says Cristal. The bullet coins lived on, through the reign of King Taksin of Thonburi and into the Rattanakosin Era that heralded Bangkok's founding.

The most distinctive feature of Rattanakosin pot duang is the depiction of the chakra wheel, representing the royal Chakri Dynasty. They bore other marks as well that specific individual rulers. But a shortage of pot duang led authorities in 1857 to designate several foreign silver coins as legal tender as well.

Flat coins first appeared here after Phraya Chula Rajmontri visited Singapore in 1835 and saw the flat coppers in use there. King Rama II ordered a Siamese version from England. They gradually shunted aside bullet coins, though their production continued into Rama V's reign.

It was a natural progression, Cristal reasons:

"Shells from the Mekong River had been used as a means of exchange since the Sukhothai Era. Considering the number of living creatures killed to obtain the shells, it was thought that the practice should be stopped, and the use of metal coins following the practice of the Europeans, Chinese and Vietnamese should be substituted to avoid such sinful acts."

The production of bullet coins was also a time-consuming process, he adds. "Only 30 chang or 2,400 baht worth could be produced a day. That is 240 coins made by one craftsman."

The first flat coins in Rama IV's time comprised a set of hammered gold and silver fuang that were inscribed "Krung Thep". "They were struck in a manner very similar to those of early English hammered coins, which were used up to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and even for awhile after her," Cristal says.

It was only in 1876 that Rama V introduced the first Thai coins with a royal portrait, as had already been the case in England for centuries. "The copper series with King Rama V's portrait was produced at the same mint as Queen Victoria's pennies, half-pennies and farthings and closely resembled these coins."

"Siamese Coins: From Funan to the Fifth Reign" is published by River Books.


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