Ramkhamhaeng was born a prince in the northern kingdom of Sukhothai in what is today Thailand. His father Pha Muang had seized the Khmer outpost at Sukhothai and made himself ruler there in perhaps 1240; his son Ban Muang had ruled after him. When 19, young Rama had distinguished himself in battle by defeating the commander of attacking forces, earning the epithet "the bold", thus Rama the Bold, or Ramkhamhaeng. He succeeded his elder brother and reigned from around 1270 to 1298.
Ramkhamhaeng is revered by the Thai today as the father of the Thai alphabet and the first Buddhist king. But he was also a brilliant military leader as well as a clever propagandist.
The kingdom Ramkhamhaeng inherited was quite small, consisting of only a few local power centres. By the time he died, however, it had been increased manyfold, to include power centres which extended north into present day Laos and west into what is now Myanmar, formerly Burma. Ramkhamhaeng is unlikely to have marched into all these places with armies; though this did happen at times, he also gained allegiance from tributary kingdoms in a common Southeast Asian political structure which saw the smaller kingdoms maintain a measure of independence while sending tribute to the centre and coming to its aid if required.
in 1292 Ramkhamhaeng had a stone inscription carved which painted an idyllic picture of his style of leadership; he is cast as a just, benevolent, and accessible monarch beloved by his people. The kingdom is spoken of as prosperous and peaceful, and the people, free of constraints. The implicit contrast is probably with the Khmer kingdom of Angkor Wat, which presumably had a rigid social hierarchy, arbitrary administration of justice, and severe taxation. There may have been some truth in this, for the Angkor kingdom was faltering and losing much of the power and control it had previously had in the region.
This inscription, by the way, was carved using new, proto-Thai characters which Ramkhamhaeng claimed to have devised in 1283 to make the written tonal Thai language comprehensible to those who spoke nontonal languages.
As the inscription makes clear, Ramkhamhaeng's kingdom was Buddhist. The king shared his throne, from which he listened to his subjects' petitions, with monks who preached the dhamma, thus encouraging a close association between the kingdom and religion. He had many beautiful Buddhist temples and monuments made, some of which survive to this day in the elegant ruins at Sukhothai.
Ramkhamhaeng presided over the glory years of Sukhothai. When he died his son Lothai succeeded him, to reign from 1298 to perhaps 1346, but he was not as able as his father, and the vast kingdom quickly disintegrated. Soon Ayuthaya began to rise in importance, and the centre of power shifted south to be centred around this city, which would have predominance until 1767, after which the capital would become for a short period Thonburi, finally coming to rest in Bangkok in 1782.
Thailand's first open university, established in Bangkok in 1971 and today educating almost 400,000 students annually, was named after this great monarch.