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Published May 29, 2011 Updated June 09, 2024

Thai & Siamese Playing Cards

The Portuguese were the first Westerners to trade with Ayutthaya in Thailand in the 16th century. Traders also arrived from India, Japan, the Arab world, England, Holland and France.

South East Asia Thailand Gambling Money-Suited Pai Add to Collection

The Kingdom of Thailand and formerly known as Siam

The start of foreign relations

The start of foreign relations

Above: the start of foreign relations. Image courtesy Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall, Bangkok.

For millennia Suvarṇabhūmi (now Southeast Asia) has been on the trade route between India and China. The Portuguese were the first Westerners to trade with Ayutthaya in Thailand in the 16th century. Thus European playing cards may have been used alongside locally produced cards.

Traders also arrived from Japan, the Arab world, England, Holland as well as France and often they had their own quarters or village communities. Chinese Money cards are produced in Thailand with Thai indices. The heritage resulting from the presence of foreign cultures in Thailand still exists today.

Pai Pong Jin - Two color chess cards from Thailand

Above: Pai Pong Jin - Two color chess cards from Thailand

Background details in otherwise religious temple mural paintings frequently include scenes from daily life.

During the nineteenth century Belgian manufacturers (e.g. Brepols, Van Genechten) produced "Chinese" cards for South-East Asian countries including Java, the Celebes, Thailand and possibly China as well (Eugeen van Autenboer, 1976). They also tended to register suitable trademarks for Far Eastern markets, such as tigers, elephants, Japanese spearmen, ostrich, exotic birds and so on.

Chinese cards exported to Far Eastern countries by Belgian manufacturers

Above: typical example of 'Chinese' cards exported to Far Eastern countries by Belgian manufacturers such as Brepols or Van Genechten.

Van Genechten was the first to print this kind of playing card in Turnhout: he was also one of the last, having managed to keep a firm hold on his markets. It is recorded that 111 tons of playing cards were exported from Belgium to Thailand in 1938. Thai playing cards in the 1930s had a minimum charge per set of 0.02 Thai Baht (2 Satang), which is the equivilant of a fraction of a US cent today. The Playing Cards Act, a law which prohibits individuals from owning playing cards was passed in 1943. This law was part of a larger anti-gambling crack-down which dates back to 1935 and which also prompted tougher Thai customs regulations for imported cards to restrict Belgian and Chinese imports.


Chess players, detail from 18th century wall painting illustrating Ramakien story

Above: Chess players, detail from 18th century wall painting illustrating Ramakien story in the Grand Palace & Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok.

Gamblers, detail from 18th century wall painting illustrating Ramakien story

Above: Gamblers, detail from 18th century wall painting illustrating Ramakien story in the Grand Palace & Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok.

Chinatown Gambling Houses, c.1900

1900; A ‘First Class Gambling House’ in Bangkok’s Chinatown area

Above: 1900; A ‘First Class Gambling House’ in Bangkok’s Chinatown area.

Talat Nang Loeng illegal gambling house, 1900

Above: Talat Nang Loeng market, 1900, which was also known for its illegal gambling houses. The entrance still stands today in Bangkok’s Chinatown district.

More contemporary images depict card playing in everyday life.


Thai Gambling laws

The first indication that the Siamese government recognised card playing to be a form of the obsession for gambling was reported in “Gambling in Siam”, Straits Echo, 19 April 1918, Page 6  read here

A further report about gambling appeared in Malaya Tribune, 16 September 1930, Page 10  read here

How Siam's "Poker Fiends" May Play Under New Laws, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 15 September 1937, Page 3  read here


Thai Playing Cards Manufacturing Factory logo
Wrapper from a brick of 8 Pai Thai playing cards

Above: Wrapper from a brick of 8 Pai Thai playing cards

Thai Playing Cards Manufacturing Factory established 1938

The state-controlled Thai Playing Cards Manufacturing Factory, Bangkok, was established in 1938 and today produces about 400,000 decks per month   read more →

The Thai Playing Cards Act, 1943
Official Excise Department information page


Thai police arrest elderly bridge players in Pattaya

Thailand has strict anti-gambling laws and it is illegal for individuals to possess more than 120 playing cards read more

For another story about gambling in Thailand, click here


Playing Card Related Ephemera

Pub Sign in Bangkok

Above: Bric-a-brac shop sign in Bangkok. Perhaps 'Jack of Diamonds' might suggest making some cash from dealing?

cigarette cards published by tobacco companies

Above: cigarette cards published by tobacco companies.

Playing cards depicted on Thai matchboxes

Above: Playing cards depicted on Thai matchboxes

asian art

Above: paintings inspired by Chinese playing cards from an exhibition in a Thai restaurant. Photographs by Adam Wintle - click to enlarge.

cigarette cards published by foreign tobacco companies

Above: cigarette cards have been published by foreign tobacco companies featuring Thai subjects, such as military uniforms or traditional costumes.

playing card mug produced by C.S. Thai Trading Company Limited

Above: mug produced by C.S. Thai Trading Company Limited.


Children’s Educational Cards

As gambling is technically illegal in Thailand, playing cards are slightly taboo and parents wouldn't want their children to be playing with cards. However, a number of educational sets of cards can be found.

Thai Children’s Alphabet Cards

Above: cigarette cards featuring educational topics.

Other Playing Cards and Card Games

cards published by Eagle Bird Cigarettes

Above: assorted Thai cards.


Above: Thailand has strict anti-gambling laws.

Round the World card game published by Pepys, 1961

Above: Bangkok-themed card from Round the World card game published in 1961.


References

Autenboer, Dr Eugeen van: The Turnhout Playing Card Industry 1826-1976, Aurelia Books, Brussels 1976

Christopher John Baker, Pasuk Phongpaichit: A History of Thailand, Cambridge University Press, 2005

Ministry of Finance, Department of Commerce and Statistics (name varies), Statistical Yearbook of the Kingdom of Siam (title varies), 1916+.

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By Adam Wintle

Member since March 15, 1997

Adam has been involved in developing the site as well as reviewing new decks and conducting research. He is particularly interested in innovation, Kickstarter and East Asian cards. He is a member of the IPCS and webmaster of the EPCS.


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