Gold and silver havelong been highly regarded throughout human history. Because of their values, many cultures used gold, silver as well as copper as a medium of exchange, usually in the form of cash when doing trades. The shapes and forms of money vary according to various surrounding factors, which further reflect local cultures, belief systems as well as local economic structures in each given society. In Thailand, money as a medium of exchange is called Ngern which refers to silver— the precious metal that has been accepted as currency for a very long time. Accordingly, to use the word Ngern in Thai is to refer to both money and the metal silver.
The production of local money in the regions across the present-day Thailand was intended to supply the medium of exchangefor both regional and inter-regional trade. In particular, communities in Isan or the northeastern region of Thailand, which was once a part of Lan Xang Kingdom during 14-16 century AD, independently produced money using gold and silver. Although using gold and silver as currency was common, Isan money was unique and had a long history. In some periods, currencies from neighbouring lands, such as from the kingdom of Annam or Phodduang money from the central region of ancient Thailand, were allowed in circulation. Denominations of money were determined by the weight of silver used. Such currencies had been prominent before the Thai state successfully introduced mint coins into local Isan economic system during the reign of Rama IV and V. Hence, currencies which were in circulation in Isan provinces could generally be categorized as Thailand’s ‘Isan Money’ (pic. 1), ‘Lan Xang money’ or ‘Laotian money’.
Pic. 1: Isan money
The Origin of Thailand’s Isan Money (Lan Xang Money)
Isan area or the area covering the north-eastern region of the present-day Thailand has a long history. Once a part of Lan Xang Kingdom, Isan shared its social and cultural heritage with its neighbouring lands. People’s ways of life in Isan region were particularly similar those in Laos. In the same vein, local money as well as monetary system in the Isan provinces followed Lan Xang system.
Pic. 2: The map of Sisattanak Nahut Kingdom
Cash money which was produced to be used inthe Isan region of Thailand was called Isan money. During 14th Century AD, Isan was under the rule of Sisattanak Nahut Kingdom, or the Kingdom of Lan Xang Hom Khao or Lan Xang (pic. 2). Cash money used across the kingdom was made by moulding. The money ingots were engraved with several designs, including the white elephant emblem which was the emblem of the kingdom, the Chakra emblem signifying the deity of the kingdom, as well as floral and animal designs according to local beliefs. During 1353-1778 AD, Lan Xang Kingdom included the area on both sides of the Mekong river. Significant cities were Vientiane and Luang Prabang on the left of the east side of the river, and Sakonnakhon or Udon Thani on the right or the west side of the river. Before Thonburi period, the Isan provinces were still under Lan Xang’s rule. Thus the money which was in circulation in this area was found to have belonged to the kingdom of Lan Xang, and was contemporaneous with Jiang money of the Lanna Kingdom. The medium of exchange in circulation was in the form ofeither gold or silver; its denominations were determined by weight of the metal used as material. This tradition was common across Lan Xang, Vietnam, and the Khmer Kingdom.Additionally, Isan provinces allowed Phudduang money which originated in the central region of Thailand into circulation, and called it Ngern Mak Kho or Mak Kho money. (pic. 3) Furthermore, English money which had been popular in India and Burma was also adopted. It was called Rupee or Rupiah money. (pic. 4) During this period when Isan was a part of Lan Xang, the kingdom of Lan Xang spread its influence over the area on both sides of the Mekong River, including Laos, and the Kingdom of Cambodia, and Xishuangbanna in Yunnan province. The Mekong River was for Lan Xang the main channel for conducting trade with other kingdoms. It is assumed that Isan money or the money found in the area that used to be Lan Xang was produced under the influence from Vietnam and China. Some came from other kingdoms with which Lan Xang was maintaining relationship.In the Isan part of Lan Xang Kingdom, various kinds of money have been found, for example Phodduang and Bia from Sukhothai kingdom, E-pae money from China, Burmese Rupee, and Ding or Ring money from Vietnam. This also indicates that, different kinds of money were accepted regardless of their origins throughout the kingdom of Lan Xang, including the Isan provinces, as long as they were made from silver and gold. The tradition had been prominent until local productions became common.
Afterwards, the quality of silver moulding was standardized. The results were rectangle-shaped ingots called Tu money, boat-shaped ingots called Hang money or bar money. These two types of money were made of pure silver, and became widely popular across the Mekong region. They were followed by another two types of local money called Hoy money and Lad money. These latter two had lesser and sometimes fluctuated value because they were made of alloyed material. Despite the differences, all types had unique characteristics that were typical to the Isan region.
Pic. 3: Mak Kho money or Phodduang
Pic. 4: Rupee or Rupiah money
Forms of Isan Money
The shapes and forms of local money circulated in Isan region, or alternatively called Lan Xang money, were significantly different from currencies in other regions of Thailand. Isan money was made in a long bar shape, resembling a boat or Chinese bar money, and came in many types. Usually a symbol or a character was stamped on the money ingots. Since high volume of business dealings were done with Chin Haw (Chinese people from Yunnan province) and Vietnamese people, exchange rates from both areas were accepted and used interchangeably. No fixed exchange rates were established. Moreover, anyone who wishes to mould any currencies in circulation in Isan region can do so. Similarly, anyone who wishes to produce money in a different form can do so as one wishes. Therefore, there was no uniformed or standardized currency rate. For every type of money discussed, it is not known who created the money or when it was created. However, the shapes and forms of the money that has been discovered suggest that it might have been modelled after the money used in Vietnam and Southern China.
Types of Isan Money
Isan money was made as bar-shaped ingots. This was a common feature among local money in the area. Other features vary according to each type. Isan money could be categorized according to characteristics and physical components as follows:
Hoy money (pic. 5) is a type of Isan or Lan Xang money, made of silver, copper, and brass alloy. This was called Ngern Pon or mixed money, referring to the process of adding bronze or white gold to the silver alloy until it became pure bronze with the weight of 7 baht and 2 salueng. Then, 10 salueng of pure silver would be added to the mix which would consequently be poured to the mould.The finished product would look like Chala boat or a weaving shuttle with a slightly tapered end on both sides. The upper side was a bumpy texture like that of a caterpillar. Its value varied according to its purity. There was a symbol or an inscription on both ends and on the center area, either on the upper side or the bottom. Some were found to have been inscribed with the text Kok, referring to the city of Chiang Rai through which Kok river passes. Kok river finally joins with the Mekong River which was at the time the main channel of transport between Lan Xang and Lanna Kingdom.
Pic. 5: Hoy money
Lad money (pic. 8) was considered a small denomination, sometimes called ‘Thong Lad’. Lad means market or ‘Ta-Lad’. This type of money was made of copper and brass alloy, and usually was plated with silver. The shape of Lad money is similar to Hoy. On the ingots were at least 3 emblems present, for example the symbol of an elephant, a shellfish, a butterfly, a chakra, a fish, or an asterisk. However, also found were Lad that was made in the shape of a weaving shuttle with a track on the center, but had no symbol on the ingot. Lad money varied in weight and sizes. It was in circulation in Lan Xang area, across both sides of the Mekong River which are the present day Isan region of Thailand and Laos.According to a scholar, "there were no standardized criteria for Lad. Some are large in size; while others small and short. It depends solely on how the makers think necessary or prefer”. Thus, there were no precise units for change. One fueang could equal 4, 6, or 8 Lad. One baht could equal 32 or even 100 Lad. Besides, there is another type of Lad money called Lad Hoy which is similar to Hoy money but was made with less valuable metal, and considered money of little value.
Pic. 6: Lad money
Hang money (pic. 7) or alternatively called bar money due to its shape. Hang contained high amount of pure silver. It was made into a rectangular shape with both sides tapered and lifted like a boat in Hainan culture. It weighed 6 tamlueng and 6 salueng. Its main influence was from Vietnam. Its name ‘Hang’ derives from the fact that the shape of the money looks like a feeder(Hang) for pigs. There was a Chinese character engraved on every side of the ingot, namely in the front, in the back, on the sides, on the top, and at the bottom. The use of Hang spread into Lan Xang or Laos as well as Isan region of Thailand. It was very well-received because it contained 98% of pure silver.
Additionally, there is another type of small change called Ngern Heua or boat money (pic.5). It is a boat-shaped ingot made of metal alloy.Heua money was worth very little. However, it was also called Ngern Hang in some places in Isan and Laos.
Pic. 7: Hang money
Pic. 8: Heua money
Tu money (pic.9) had its origin in Vietnam (or yuan in vernacular Thai language). It had been widely used in Vietnam and Khmer area. The use, the weight and the purity of Tu money in Thailand were the same as in Vietnam. It was produced by moulding. Its features were the same as Hang money. The ingots were engraved on the side with a Chinese character and a cross symbol. Like Hang money, Tu had a long history of being a common medium of exchange. Due to the purity of the silver used, it was widely accepted by merchants as well as by the markets. In Isan vernacular language, Tu money was called ‘lun’. Tu money did not have a lifted rim like Hang. After it left the mold, Tu would go straight in circulation without any refinement. In comparison, the purity of silver used to make Tu money is not as high as in Hang. There was no lifted rim, no dented center. Tu money weighted 3 tamlueng. Hang and Tu (found in Isan area) were the result of an attempt by Khmer merchants to reproduce Vietnamese currency. This is because the Vietnamese Hang and Hoy were made with a high standard, thus were well received by traders. The production of Hang and Tu was intended to meet the standards of Vietnamese Hang and Hoy in order to trade with Vietnamese merchants.
Pic. 9: Tu money
In conclusion, Hoy, Lad, Hang, Heua, and Tu were local currencies which were in circulation in ancient Isan area. In comparison to money elsewhere in Thailand, Isan currencies were especially unique. Being rectangular-shaped, they resembled money used in Vietnamor China. This shows deep cultural and historical relations among nations. Furthermore, Isan money is a good cultural evidence of the identities of Isan money in the region. It is valuable as our nation’s cultural heritage, preserving the economic history of the Isan region for later generations of Isan people. Thus, the Treasury Department has chosen a selection of Isan money for exhibition at the department’s museums both in Bangkok and local branches for general public interest.
1 Mostly made of copper, brass, and bronze.