So I got a random email out of the blue yesterday from my book agent, calmly informing me that a book publisher in Thailand wants to buy the rights to print a Thai-language translation of the first BADASS book. And, while I’m not quite sure how well phrases like “crotchknocking douchebags”, “raging killboners” or “hardcore knuckle sandwich to the grill” are going to translate into the intricacies of the Thai language, this honestly seems like the ultimate match made in Badass Hell. On the one hand, of course this book needs to be lining the shelves of a city called Bangkok, but also because ball-crushing badassitude is such an integrally-woven thing into Thai culture that I’m pretty sure kids there are born with the innate knowledge of how to knee strike a dude in the gonads with enough PSI to pop a new set of Firestones. It’s like part of the second-grade curriculum there to learn how to shatter a dude’s nose with your elbow, and Muay Thai kickboxing is such a fundamental aspect of the culture that it wouldn’t take much to convince me that Ong Bak was just a documentary about the 2002 Thailand Parliamentary elections.
So! With that in mind, this week I am going to pay homage to the good people of Thailand and prep them for the airstrike of Ultimate Badassitude™ headed their way by writing my article about one of the most awesome warlord heroes from Thai history – the King Taksin the Great, a common-born street trader who joined the military, rose through the ranks from Private to Commander of the Imperial Guard, led a ferocious guerilla war against a vastly-superior enemy force , threw out an invading army, crowned himself king, conquered new lands, and then went so completely nuts and tyrannical that his own advisors declared him unfit to rule on grounds of insanity and sentenced him to die by being sewn up into a velvet bag and beaten to death with sticks… which didn’t work because he sewed a different person in the bag instead, escaped the capital, and lived as a badass hermit on a mountain until he was 80 years old. Nowadays his face appears on Thai money and giant badass equestrian statues of his steely visage loom over traffic circles throughout the greater Bangkok metropolitan area.
And if any part of that story has already blown your fucking mind, it’s only because you weren’t paying attention to my first paragraph.
The story of Taksin the Great dates back to the 1760s, at a time when Thailand was known as Siam, Myanmar was known as Burma, and automobiles were known as horses. The details of Taksin’s early life are all over the map, mostly because this kid was a commoner so it didn’t really make sense for 18th-century Thai historians to spend a lot of time documenting his grade school education, but what we do know for sure is that he was born on April 17, 1734, in the Thai capital of Ayutthaya. His father was a Chinese immigrant and his mother was a Thai woman, but it would seem that at some point he was adopted by a powerful lord in the palace. Taksin worked as a trader for a while, studied with Buddhist monks for three years, possibly studied both Thai boxing and Kung Fu (depending on who you ask), and could speak fluent Chinese, Thai, and Hindi, and seems to have had a working knowledge of a few other local dialects as well. He was confident, a good leader, and fearless, and these traits helped him get appointed better and better positions in the Thai government and military so that by the time he was in his 20s, he was already commander of the Imperial Guard and the military Governor of Tak Province.
Well I’m not sure how well you remember my article on King Naresuan, but one thing you need to know about medieval Thailand is that they really really fucking didn’t get along with the neighboring Kingdom of Burma. The two rivals constantly struggled against each other for power, and in the 1760s the pendulum of power had firmly swung in the direction of Burma. Thailand was at the end of a 400-year Kingdom that had seen 33 kings from 5 dynasties, but as these things go the King at this point was a totally useless a-hole who spent all his time banging hookers and shotgunning beer cans in his back yard when he should have been building forts or not bankrupting the economy. Known as “The King with Skin Disease,” this guy was so worthless that Burma knew they had a perfect opportunity to charge across the border and sword-hump their hated enemies into submission. So in 1764 the forces of Burma assembled for war, invaded Thailand, and set their sights on demolishing the Thai capital.
One of the only things standing in their way was Taksin of the Imperial Guard.
Taksin fought heroically, even as the Burmese surrounded Ayutthaya and laid siege to the capital. In sortie after sortie, Taksin personally led attacks, cutting and slicing through his foes with a sword in each hand, but in the end it just wouldn’t be enough. After three years of war and an extended siege Burmese troops tunneled beneath the walls of the capital and began flooding into the streets of the capital. The battle was lost.
With fires and destruction all around him, Taksin fled the carnage with just a few of his trusted men and headed out into the countryside to try and organize a resistance. The Burmese rampaged through the Thai capital, burning, looting, and plundering, bringing a fiery end to a Siamese Kingdom that had lasted since 1350. Most of the ruling class of Thailand was executed, thousands of people were taken captive, and the city’s valuables were hauled back to the Burmese capital.
Bloodied, but far from finished, Taksin swore vengeance.
Before I go any further, there is a really awesome (but somewhat-apocryphal) story that comes out of the Sack of Ayutthaya – the tale of Nai Khanomtom, the father of Muay Thai. Nai was one of the Thai soldiers taken prisoner during the battle, and he was brought back to Burma with the other POWs. Well, according to the story, the Burmese King had heard a lot of good shit about Thai kickboxing so he decided to set up a tournament where the most badass Burmese martial artists would go Street Fighter II against the best fighters the Thai had to offer. Nai Khanomtom stepped forward as the champion of the Thai, and was matched up with the reigning Burmese boxing champion. Nai first performed the traditional Thai pre-fight dance, then proceeded to beat the fuck out of the Burmese dude. Shocked, the Burmese ref (who had about all the integrity of a WWE referee) disqualified the fight, claiming that Nai’s dance had been some Black Magic shit and it skewed the results of the duel.
Thoroughly impressed, the Burmese King apparently offered Nai a deal – if you can beat eight more of my men, one after the other, I’ll give you your freedom. Nai agreed, then proceeded to Black Ninjas the Burmese fighters, kicking their balls through their skulls one after the other until he was surrounded by a giant pile of sweaty shirtless unconscious dudes. The Burmese King held up his portion of the deal, letting Nai go free and offering him a gift – either a big stack of cash or two hot Burmese wives. Nai chose the wives, saying that it was a lot easier to make money than it was to meet wives.
To this day, the people of Thailand celebrate “Boxer’s Day” every year on March 17th to commemorate Nai Khanomtom’s victory over the nine Burmese fighters.
“Every part of the Siamese is blessed with venom.
Even with his bare hands, he can fell nine or ten opponents.
But his King was incompetent and lost the country to the enemy. If he had been any good,
there was no way the City of Ayutthaya would ever have fallen“
While all that face-kicking was going down, Taksin was moving his troops sixty miles southeast, setting up in the town of Thonburi near Bangkok. He put out a call to the countryside to take back the land from the Burmese, and immediately went to work training his forces for battle. He went to the Chinese, asking them for help, and because Taksin was half-Chinese himself he was able to come back with gunpowder, cannons, money and rifles. He built a fleet, assembled nearly 5,000 men, and then did a badass fucking training montage where they all camped out in a ruined Buddhist temple and he taught them all how to backflip off an Elephant and knee-strike a dude in the eye so hard that his hair catches on fire.
When his forces returned to Ayutthaya to retake it from the Burmese, the chronicles report that every man in the Thai army was equipped in an unusual way… instead of a spear and shield they were all dual-wielding swords, knives, hatchets or machetes.
I don’t know about you, but that would kind of freak me the fuck out if I saw it.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that Burma pulled a lot of their forces back because they were worried about a war with China, and also because they weren’t expecting a fucking 5,000-man strong army of dual-wielding Thai warriors to counter-attack them just six months after sacking Ayutthaya, but in the end the result is the same – riding in on horseback at the head of his forces, Taksin broke through the gates of the capital and drove the Burmese from the city. Amid the cheers of his people, Taksin rode to the palace, and on December 28, 1768, he declared himself King of Siam.
For the next fifteen years, King Taksin brought about an amazing and improbably new golden age in Thailand. He cracked down on crime, restored order to a kingdom shattered by war, united warring factions within Thailand, and used the Royal Treasury to buy food and medical supplies for his people. He expanded his realm, built forts along the border to Burma to prevent another attack, opened trade with China, and even led a couple expeditions that captured lands in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam (he claimed these had been “traditional Thai dominions,” but that was bullshit)
So, to recap – peasant boy son of an immigrant becomes Imperial Guard, defends the capital from a siege, organizes a Kung Fu machete army, retakes the capital just six months later, makes himself King, marries a Laotian princess, and then somehow becomes an awesome, powerful, benevolent ruler who improves the lives of his population. Oh, and he does all of this before he’s 40 years old. It’s a hell of a thing, but the story only gets weirder from here.
Ruined temple in Ayutthaya
Towards the end of this otherwise-normal, Taksin eventually kind of started going completely off the rails psycho. He got more and more into religion, and then eventually decided, fuck it, he was a living Bodhisattva and all the Buddhist monks in Thailand should worship him because he’s enlightened and has mystical sacred powers that everyone should bow to. He told everyone his blood was white instead of red, that he could control weather, and that he talked to the Buddha directly like any time he wanted. He started demanding public homage from Buddhist monks and temples, and then had his guards beat up, flog, deport, or imprison anyone who told him that this was an insane thing to ask for. Eventually, amid an increasingly-more-tyrannical and torture-filled reign, King Taksin’s advisors organized a coup and officially had the King declared insane, sentenced to death, and succeeded by his son Rama (who actually ended up being a really good king and continued a dynastic line that would last generations).
Now, according to Thai law, it was considered sacrilegious to allow Royal Blood to touch the ground, so the More Humane Execution Method was to tie the King up in a fucking velvet bag Guardians of the Galaxy style and then a bunch of guys would just beat the shit out of the bag with wooden quarterstaffs until the bag stopped thrashing around. So, this is what happened to King Taksin the Great…. EXCEPT there’s a good chance the maniac King actually had someone else stuffed in the bag instead and that he actually escaped the city, climbed to the top of one of the Himalayas, and lived in a cave until he was 80 years old.
I’m listing his Date of Death as April 7, 1782, which is the official story, but if I had to make a wager on it, I’d guess he probably lived a lot longer than that.
Legends of Muay Thai
Father of Muay Thai
Lee, Khoon Choy. Golden Dragon and Purple Phoenix. London: World Scientific, 2013.
Mishra, Patit Paban. The History of Thailand. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2010.
Ngaosyvathn, Mayoury and Pheuiphanh Ngaosyvathn. Paths to Conflagration. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Ooi, Keat Gin. Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia from Angkor Wat to Timor. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.