October 23rd of every year is a national holiday in Thailand as it marks King Chulalongkorn Day or known in Thai as Wan Piya Maharat (วันปิยมหาราช). It is the memorial day of the passing away of Chulalongkorn, otherwise known as King Rama V. Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poraminthra Maha Chulalongkorn Phra Chunla Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua (พระบาทสมเด็จพระปรมินทรมหาจุฬาลงกรณ์ พระจุลจอมเกล้าเจ้าอยู่หัว) was the fifth monarch of Siam under the House of Chakri. He was known to the Siamese of his time as Phra Phuttha Chao Luang (พระพุทธเจ้าหลวง, the Royal Buddha). His reign was characterized by the modernization of Siam, governmental and social reforms, and territorial concessions to the British and French. As Siam was threatened by Western expansionism, Chulalongkorn, through his policies and acts, managed to save Siam from colonisation. All of his reforms were dedicated to ensuring Siam’s survival in the face of Western colonialism, so that Chulalongkorn earned the epithet Phra Piya Maharat (พระปิยมหาราช, the Great Beloved King).
King Chulalongkorn was born on September 20, 1853, to King Mongkut and Queen Debsirindra and given the name Chulalongkorn. In 1861, he was designated Krommamuen Pikhanesuan Surasangkat; krom was part of a Thai royal title indicating an “uncrowned king” before this title was changed to somdet. His father gave him a broad education, including instruction from European tutors such as Anna Leonowens. In 1866, he became a novice monk for six months at Wat Bawonniwet according to royal tradition. Upon his return to his secular life in 1867, Chulalongkorn was designated Krommakhun Phinit Prachanat (กรมขุนพินิตประชานาถ).
In 1867, King Mongkut led an expedition to the Malay Peninsula south of the city of Hua Hin, to verify his calculations of the solar eclipse of August 18, 1868. Both father and son fell ill of malaria. Mongkut died on October 1, 1868. Assuming the 15 year old Chulalongkorn to be dying as well, King Mongkut on his deathbed wrote, “My brother, my son, my grandson, whoever you all the senior officials think will be able to save our country will succeed my throne, choose at your own will.” Si Suriyawongse, the most powerful government official of the day, managed the succession of Chulalongkorn to the throne and his own appointment as regent. The coronation was held on November 11, 1868. Chulalongkorn’s health improved, and he was tutored in public affairs, traveled to India (then under the British Raj) and Java (then under Dutch colonial rule) to observe the workings of modern public administration. He was crowned king in his own right as Rama V on November 16, 1873.
Si Suriyawongse then arranged for the Front Palace of King Pinklao (who was his uncle) to be bequeathed to King Pinklao’s son, Prince Yingyot (who was Chulalongkorn’s cousin).
The young Chulalongkorn was an enthusiastic reformer. He visited Singapore and Java in 1870 and British India during 1870–1872 to study the administration of British colonies. He toured the administrative centers of Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay, and back to Calcutta in early 1872. This journey was a source of his later ideas for the modernization of Siam.
As regent, Si Suriyawongse wielded great influence. Si Suriyawongse continued the works of King Mongkut. He supervised the digging of several important khlongs (canals) such as Padung Krungkasem and Damneun Saduak, and the paving of roads such as Chareon Krung and Silom. He was also a patron of Thai literature and the performing arts.
At the end of his regency, Si Suriyawonse was raised to Somdet Chao Phraya, the highest title a noble could attain. Si Suriyawongse was the most powerful noble of the 19th century. His family, Bunnag, was a powerful one, of Persian descent. It dominated Siamese politics since the reign of Rama I. Chulalongkorn then married four of his half-sisters, all daughters of Mongkut: Savang Vadhana, Saovabha, and Sunandha (Mongkut with concubine Piam), and Sukumalmarsri (Monkut with concubine Samli).
Chulalongkorn’s first reform was to establish the Auditory Office (หอรัษฎากรพิพัฒน์), solely responsible for tax collection, to replace corrupt tax collectors. As tax collectors had been under the aegis of various nobles and thus a source of their wealth, this reform caused great consternation among the nobility, especially the Front Palace. From the time of King Mongkut, the Front Palace had been the equivalent of a “second king”, with one-third of national revenue allocated to it. Prince Yingyot of the Front Palace was known to be on friendly terms with many Britons, at a time when the British Empire was considered the enemy of Siam.
In 1874, Chulalongkorn established the Council of State as a legislative body and a privy council as his personal advisory board based on the British privy council. Council members were appointed by the monarch.
Chulalongkorn is perhaps best known for his abolition of Siamese slavery (ทาส.) He associated the abolition of slavery in the United States with the bloodshed of the American Civil War. Chulalongkorn, to prevent such a bloodbath in Siam, provided several steps towards the abolition of slavery, not an extreme turning point from servitude to total freedom. Those who found themselves unable to live on their own sold themselves into slavery by rich noblemen. Likewise, when a debt was defaulted, the borrower would become a slave of the lender. If the debt was redeemed, the slave regained freedom. However, those whose parents were household slaves (ทาสในเรือนเบี้ย) were bound to be slaves forever because their redemption price was extremely high.
Because of economic conditions, people sold themselves into slavery in great numbers and in turn they produced a large number of household slaves. In 1867 they accounted for one-third of Siamese population. The law at that time fixed the value of slave’s children for a boy at 14 tamluengs and a girl’s price was 12 tamluengs. The price could not be reduced between the ages of 1 and 40. The price of a male slave who was 100 years old was 1 tamlueng. For female-slaves, the price was only 3 bahts. Frankly speaking, a slave who could not pay money to withdraw himself from slavery was a slave for life.
In 1874, Chulalongkorn enacted the Royal Act of August 21 2417 B.E. /1874 A.D. that lowered the redemption price of household slaves born in 1867 (his ascension year) and freed all of them when they had reached 21. Therefore, the slave’s child who was born in the year 1867 had the right to reduce the price each year. The Act fixed the price of a boy slave at 8 tamluengs and girls slaves at 7 tamluengs. All children who were born in the year 1867 became free when they were 21 years old. The newly-freed slaves would have time to settle themselves as farmers or merchants so they would not become unemployed. In 1905, the Slave Abolition Act ended Siamese slavery in all forms. The reverse of the 100 baht Series 15 (type 2) banknotes in circulation since the 2005 centennial depict Chulalongkorn in navy uniform abolishing the slave tradition.
The traditional corvée system declined after the Bowring Treaty, which gave rise to a new class of employed laborers not regulated by the government, while many noblemen continued to hold sway over large numbers of Phrai Som. Chulalongkorn needed more effective control of manpower to undo the power of nobility.
On the night of December 28, 1874, a fire broke out near the gunpowder storehouse and gasworks in the main palace. Front Palace troops quickly arrived, fully armed, “to assist in putting out the fire”. They were denied entrance and the fire was extinguished. The incident demonstrated the considerable power wielded by aristocrats and royal relatives, leaving the king little power. Reducing the power held by the nobility became one of his main motives in reforming Siam’s feudal politics.
When Prince Yingyot died in 1885, Chulalongkorn took the opportunity to abolish the titular Front Palace and created the title of “Crown Prince of Siam” in line with Western custom. Chulalongkorn’s son, Prince Vajirunhis, was appointed the first Crown Prince of Siam, though he never reigned. In 1895, when the prince died of typhoid at age 16, he was succeeded by his half-brother Vajiravudh, who was then at boarding school in England.
Freed of the Front Palace and Chinese rebellions, Chulalongkorn initiated reforms. He established the Royal Military Academy in 1887 to train officers in Western fashion. His upgraded forces provided the king much more power to centralize the country.
The government of Siam had remained largely unchanged since the fifteenth century. The central government was headed by the Samuha Nayok (i.e., prime minister), who controlled the northern parts of Siam, and the Samuha Kalahom (i.e., grand commander), who controlled southern Siam in both civil and military affairs. The Samuha Nayok presided over the Chatu Sadombh (i.e., Four Pillars). The responsibilities of each pillar overlapped and were ambiguous. In 1888, Chulalongkorn moved to institute a government of ministries. Ministers were, at the outset, members of the royal family. Ministries were established in 1892, with all ministries having equal status.
The Council of State proved unable to veto legal drafts or to give Chulalongkorn advice because the members regarded Chulalongkorn as an absolute monarch, far above their station. Chulalongkorn dissolved the council altogether and transferred advisory duties to the cabinet in 1894.
Chulalongkorn abolished the traditional Nakorn Bala methods of torture in the judiciary process, which were seen as inhumane and barbaric to Western eyes, and introduced a Western judicial code. His Belgian advisor, Rolin-Jaequemyns, played a great role in the development of modern Siamese law and its judicial system.
King Chulalongkorn also replaced the traditional lunar calendar with the Western calendar. Siam was a Buddhist country but he made it clear that other religions (including Islam and Christianity) should have the freedom to practice without fear of persecution. Communications in the country were improved greatly with the introduction of postal services, the telegraph and the construction of Thailand’s first railway (from Bangkok to Ayutthaya).
Chulalongkorn was the first Siamese king to send royal princes to Europe to be educated. In nineteenth century Europe, nationalism flourished and there were calls for more liberty. The princes were influenced by the liberal notions of democracy and elections they encountered in republics like France and constitutional monarchies like the United Kingdom.
In 1884 (year 103 of the Rattakosin Era), Siamese officials in London and Paris warned Chulalongkorn of threats from European colonialism. They advised that Siam should be reformed like Meiji Japan and that Siam should become a constitutional monarchy. Chulalongkorn demurred, stating that the time was not ripe and that he himself was making reforms.
Throughout Chulalongkorn’s reign, writers with radical ideas had their works published for the first time. The most notable ones included Tianwan, who had been imprisoned for seventeen years and from prison produced many works criticizing traditional Siamese society.
n 1863, King Norodom of Cambodia had been forced to put his country under the French protectorate. The cession of Cambodia was officially formulated in 1867. However, Inner Cambodia (as called in Siam) consisting of Battambang, Siem Reap, and Srisopon, remained a Siamese possession. This was the first of many territorial cessions. In 1887, French Indochina was formed from Vietnam and Cambodia. In 1888, French troops invaded northern Laos to subjugate the Heo insurgents. However, the French troops never left, and the French demanded more Laotian lands. In 1893, the French vice-consul of Luang Prabang Auguste Pavie, requested the cession of all Laotian lands east of the Mekong River. Siam resented the demand, leading to the Franco–Siamese War of 1893.
The French gunboat Le Lutin entered the Chao Phraya and anchored near the French consulate ready to attack. Fighting was observed in Laos. Inconstant and Comete were attacked in Chao Phraya, and the French sent an ultimatum: an indemnity of three million francs, as well as the cession of and withdrawal from Laos. Siam did not accept the ultimatum. French troops then blockaded the Gulf of Siam and occupied Chantaburi and Trat. Chulalongkorn sent Rolin-Jacquemyns to negotiate. The issue was eventually settled with the cession of Laos in 1893, but the French troops in Chantaburi and Trat refused to leave.
The cession of vast Laotian lands had a major impact on Chulalongkorn’s spirit. Prince Vajirunhis died in 1894. Prince Vajiravudh was created crown prince to replace him. Chulalongkorn realised the importance of maintaining the navy and established the Royal Thai Naval Academy in 1898.
Despite Siamese concessions, French armies continued the occupation of Chantaburi and Trat for another ten years. An agreement was reached in 1903 that French troops would leave Chantaburi but hold the coast land from Trat to Koh Kong. In 1906, the final agreement was reached. Trat was returned to Siam but the French kept Koh Kong and received Inner Cambodia.
Seeing the seriousness of foreign affairs, Chulalongkorn visited Europe in 1897. He was the first Siamese monarch to do so, and he desired European recognition of Siam as a fully independent power. He appointed his queen, Saovabha, as regent in Siam during his travel to Europe. During his European tour, Chulalongkorn learned about the sanitary districts of England and wanted to try out this local administrative unit in his capital. Later in 1897, by royal decree, the first of the Sukhaphiban (สุขาภิบาล) sanitary districts was created in Bangkok. These were the first sub-autonomous entities established in Siam.
With his experiences during the travel to British colonies and the suggestion of Prince Damrong, Chulalongkorn established the hierarchical system of monthons in 1897, composed of province, city, amphoe, tambon, and muban (village) in descending order. Each monthon was overseen by an intendant (public administrator) of the Ministry of Interior. This had a major impact, as it ended the power of all local dynasties. Central authority now spread all over the country through the administration of intendants. For example, the Lanna states in the north (including the Kingdom of Chiangmai, Principalities of Lampang, Lamphun, Nan, and Prae, tributaries to Bangkok) were made into two monthons, neglecting the existence of the Lanna kings.
Local rulers did not cede power willingly. Three rebellions sprang up in 1901: the Ngeaw rebellion in Phrae, the 1901–1902 Holy Man’s Rebellion in Isaan, and the Rebellion of Seven Sultans in the south. All these rebellions were crushed in 1902 with the city rulers stripped of their power and imprisoned.
After the establishment of the monthon system, Chulalongkorn instituted a census to count all men available to the government. The Employment Act of 1900 required that all workers be paid, not forced to work.
Chulalongkorn had established a defence ministry in 1887. The ending of the corvée system necessitated the beginning of military conscription, thus the Conscription Act of 1905 in Siam. This was followed in 1907 by the first act providing for invoking martial law, which seven years later was changed to its modern form by his son and successor, King Vajiravudh.
The Royal Thai Survey Department, a Special Services Group of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, engaged in cadastral survey, which is the survey of specific land parcels to define ownership for land registration, and for equitable taxation. Land title deeds are issued using the Torrens title system, though it was not until the year 1901 that the first results of this survey were obtained.
The construction of railways in Siam had a political motivation: to connect all the country to have an eye on every part of Siam. In 1901, the first railway was opened from Bangkok to Korat. In the same year, the first power plant of Siam produced electricity. Electric lights were turned on along the roads.
Siamese authorities had exercised substantial control over Malay sultanates since Ayutthaya times. The sultans sought British support as a counterweight to Siamese influence. In 1909, the Anglo-Siamese Treaty adopted which resulted in four sultanates (Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu and Perlis) being brought under British influence in exchange for Siamese legal rights and a loan to construct railways in southern Siam.
The royal equestrian statue of Chulalongkorn was finished in 1908 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the king’s reign. It was cast in bronze by a Parisian metallurgist. Chulalongkorn had visited Europe two times, in 1897 and 1907, the latter visit to cure his kidney disease. His last accomplishment was the establishment of a plumbing system in 1908. He died on October 23, 1910, of his kidney disease in Dusit Palace, and was succeeded by his son, Vajiravudh.
Chulalongkorn University, founded in 1917 as the first university in Thailand, was named in his honor. On the campus stand the statues of Rama V and his son, Rama VI.
In 1997 a memorial pavilion was raised in honor of King Chulalongkorn in Ragunda, Sweden. This was done to commemorate King Chulalongkorn’s visit to Sweden in 1897 where he visited the World’s Fair. During the time when Swedish-Norwegian king Oscar II travelled to Norway for a council, Chulalongkorn went up north to study forestry. Beginning in Härnösand and travelling via Sollefteå and Ragunda he mounted a boat in the small village of Utanede in order to take him back through Sundsvall to Stockholm. His passage through Utanede left a mark on the village as one street was named after the king. The pavilion is erected next to that road.
Many Thais show their respects for the great monarch by placing wreaths at the Equestrian Statue, in the Royal Plaza, Dusit District, on Chulalongkorn Day. Much of this part of Bangkok was originally built during the reign of Chulalongkorn and bears the architectural mix of Thai and European styles characteristic of the era. Besides the Royal Plaza, all other statues of King Chulalongkorn throughout Thailand see smaller-scaled ceremonies. Most businesses function as usual but government organizations are closed on this day.
The old 100 baht banknote of Series 14, circulated from 1994 to 2004, bears the statues of Rama V and Rama VI on its reverse. In 2005, the 100 baht banknote was revised to depict King Chulalongkorn in naval uniform and, in the background, abolishing slavery. The 1,000 baht banknote of Series 16, issued in 2015, depicts the King Chulalongkorn monument, Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall, and the abolition of slavery.
King Chulalongkorn, as monarch, appeared on numerous stamps issued in Siam during his reign including the first, the Solot (โสฬส), issued in 1883. It consisted of six face values, each of one solot, att, siao, sik, fueang and salueng — currency units prior to the decimalization of the baht. The series was printed by Waterlow and Sons in London, and was released on August 4, 1883, coinciding with the launch of Siam’s postal service. Stamps in the series depicted King Chulalongkorn in profile, facing the frame’s left, and were neither marked with the country name nor values in an international script. This necessitated the series’ replacement in 1887 to comply with the standards of the Universal Postal Union, which Siam had joined in 1885. It is the only series to refer to each of the old currency units; subsequent issues had their values denominated in att. The one-fueang stamp never entered circulation as they were not delivered in time for the postal service’s opening.
Scott #1221 was issued on April 26, 1988, to mark the centennial of Siriraj Hospital (Rong Phayaban Sirirat — โรงพยาบาลศิริราช), the oldest and largest hospital in Thailand, located in Bangkok on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, The hospital was founded by King Chulalongkorn in 1888, two years after a worldwide cholera outbreak. During the cholera outbreak in Siam, he had established temporary hospitals in 48 community districts. The hospitals were closed when the occurrence of the disease was reduced. On March 22, 1886, Chulalongkorn appointed a committee to establish a permanent hospital at Kromphrarajawangboworn Sathanpimuk (Wang Lang’s) Palace on the west bank of Chao Phraya River. He also gave money from his private funds as the first donation for the establishment.
During the preparations for the hosptial, Chulalongkorn’s son, Prince Siriraj Kakutabhundu, died of dysentery on May 31, 1887. This brought him great sorrow and a strong will to establish the hospital. After the prince’s cremation, the king donated the wood planks and everything else used in the ceremony to the hospital as well as donating the prince’s private fund.
The hospital committee built six patient wards and on April 26, 1888, King Chulalongkorn presided the opening of the hospital and named it Siriraj Hospital, also called Wang Lang Hospital by the local people. The hospital was opened to render treatment to patients both in modern and Thai traditional medicine. With an increasing demand for treatment and an inadequate number of physicians, a medical school was established in this hospital and teaching started on September 5, 1890. It was a three-year curriculum, teaching both modern and traditional medicine. This first medical school in Thailand was named Pattayakorn School. The medical degree was awarded to the first medical graduates on May 1, 1893.
While Krommamuen Chainartnarendhorn was working as the director of the medical school, he persuaded Prince Mahidol of Songkla to study medicine. The first place he went to was Harvard University in the United States, where he studied public health and later completed a medical degree. As a representative of the Kingdom of Thailand, he negotiated with the Rockefellers to raise Thai medical education up to the degree level as well as improving the facilities of Siriraj Hospital in various aspects.
Today, Siriraj Hospital is one of the largest hospitals in Southeast Asia, occupying 73 rais of land with 75 buildings with a capacity of more than 2,600 beds and more than one million outpatient visits per year, It is the primary teaching hospital of the Faculty of Medicine Siriraj Hospital, Mahidol University. The medical school accepts about 250 medical students and more than 100 for postgraduate residency training each year. Thanks to its excellent reputation, its tertiary care unit is the referral center for all hospitals in Thailand.
Siriraj Hospital also contains the Siriraj Medical Museum, nicknamed the Museum of Death, which is open to the public and a valuable resource for medical professionals and students. This museum consists of six small medical museums: the Ellis the Pathological Museum, Congdon Anatomical Museum, Sood Sangvichien Prehistoric Museum and Laboratory, Parasitology Museum, and the Songkran Niyomsane Forensic Medicine Museum. The permanent exhibits include sections on anatomy, pathology, congenital disorders, toxicology, techniques of Thai traditional medicine, and forensic pathology.
In 2008, a temporary exhibit featured the role of Siriraj Hospital during the 2004 tsunami that devastated the Andaman coastline of Thailand and other countries. The latest museum is the Siriraj Bimuksthan Museum which is opened in early 2013. The museum is housed in the renovated vintage architecture of the old Bangkok Noi train station, next to Siriraj’s newly opened private subsidiary Siriraj Piyamaharajkarun Hospital. The museum exhibits history of medicine in Thailand from traditional medicine to modern and includes history of the Bangkok Noi area where the museum and the hospital are sited.
Siriraj Hospital was the residence of the His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the ninth monarch of the Chakri Dynasty, from September 2009 to August 2013. He entered the hospital for treatment of a respiratory condition. In October 2014, King Bhumibol had gall bladder surgery at Siriraj. His Majesty died there on October 13, 2016, plunging the Kingdom of Thailand into deep mourning.
Thai people regard King Bhumibol as akin a deity and view him as the father of all Thai people (e.g., his birthday on December 5 is Father’s Day as well as the National Day). The citizens (as well as many foreign expatriates such as myself) are deeply saddened by his death. The funerary rites will continue for a full year during which time Thai people, foreign workers and tourists are requested to wear mourning clothes of black or other muted colors and has seen the cancellation of numerous public events and holidays — both Thai and foreign (meaning no public celebrations of Halloween or Christmas this year, among others).
Where I live in the southern province of Phuket, life goes on essentially as normal albeit with a distinct lack of loud noise at night (most entertainment facilities are closed at least for the first 30 days of mourning) and in a sea of black and white. The future is largely uncertain as we await the acceptance of the throne by King Bhumibol’s son, His Royal Highness Maha Vajiralongkorn (มหาวชิราลงกรณ), the crown prince who would become King Rama X. A set of ten 3-baht stamps had been scheduled to be released on December 5 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of King Bhumibol’s accession to the throne but these may be postponed or even cancelled. The New Year’s stamps, scheduled for issuance on November 15 may be cancelled as well. Only time will tell…