Chakri Day / วันจักรี

Thailand #2227a (2006)

Thailand #2227a (2006)

April 6 is annually celebrated in Thailand as Chakri Day (วันจักรี — Wan Chakri). Officially known as ‘King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke the Great Day and Chakri Dynasty Memorial Day’ (วันพระบาทสมเด็จพระพุทธยอดฟ้าจุฬาโลกมหาราชและวันที่ระลึกมหาจักรีบรมราชวงศ์), it marks the establishment of the Chakri Dynasty by Phra Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke (Rama I) in 1782. One of King Rama’s first acts was to make Bangkok the capital of Siam (modern day Thailand). The Chakri Dynasty is also referred to as the Rattanakosin Kingdom, after the island on the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River where the new capital was located. Chakri Day commemorates the coronation of Rama I but it is also a day for the people of Thailand to recognize the contributions of all the kings in the dynasty.

His Majesty the King — currently King Maha Vajiralongkorn who was proclaimed the tenth king (Rama X) of the dynasty on December 1, 2016, but has actually reigned with retroactive effect since October 13, 2016, after the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej — presides over the religious ceremonies held at the royal chapel on Chakri Day. He pays respects to his predecessors at the Royal Pantheon, which contains life-size statues of the first eight kings of the Chakri dynasty, and lays a wreath at the statue of King Rama I at the Memorial Bridge.

As this holiday always falls a few days before the three day Thai New Year (Songkran) festival, it is also an opportunity for many people to travel in preparation for the Songkran festivities. Government offices, schools, and banks close, but most other businesses open as usual on this day.

French map of Siam, 1686

French map of Siam, 1686

The Chakri dynasty (ราชวงศ์จักรี — Ratchawong Chakkri) has ruled Thailand since the founding of the Rattanakosin Era and the city of Bangkok in 1782 following the end of King Taksin of Thonburi’s reign, when the capital of Siam shifted to Bangkok. The royal house was founded by King Rama I, an Ayutthayan military leader of Sino-Mon descent. Prior to the founding of the dynasty, King Rama I held for years the title Chakri, the title of the civil chancellor (สมุหนายก). In founding the dynasty, King Rama I himself chose “Chakri” as the name for the dynasty. The emblem of the dynasty is composed of the discus (Chakra) and the trident (Trisula), the celestial weapons of god Vishnu and Shiva, whom the Thai sovereign is seen as an incarnation.

Phra Phutthayotfa Chulalok (พระพุทธยอดฟ้าจุฬาโลก), born Thongduang (ทองด้วง) ascended the throne in 1782, after defeating a rebellion which had deposed King Taksin of Thonburi. His full title in Thai is Phra Bat Somdet Phra Paramoruracha Mahachakkriborommanat Phra Phutthayotfa Chulalok (พระบาทสมเด็จพระปรโมรุราชามหาจักรีบรมนารถ พระพุทธยอดฟ้าจุฬาโลก). Like other high-ranking figures of old Siam, Rama I’s name changed several times during his lifetime, depending on his respective position, and even posthumously the way he was referred to change. His name at birth was Thongduang (also spelled Thong Duang); family names had not yet been introduced in Siam at that time.

When Thongduang served as deputy governor of Ratchaburi Province during the rule of King Ekkathat of Ayutthaya, he bore the title of Luang Yokkrabat. After the demise of Ayutthaya, the new king Taksin to whom he served as an important military commander, awarded him successively the titles of Phra Ratcharin Chao Krom Phra Tamruat (head of the police department), Phraya Aphaironnarit, Phraya Yommarat, Phraya Chakri and Chaophraya Chakri (minister of the northern provinces). Finally Taksin created for him the title of Somdet Chaophraya Maha Kasatsuek, a noble title making him quasi-royalty. When he ascended to the throne in 1782, he took the name Ramathibodi, just like the founder of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. His full title was much longer (Phra Borommarachathirat Ramathibodi Sisin Borommaha Chakkraphat Rachathibodin etc.), intended to demonstrate his universal claim to power like of earlier Siamese kings.

After his death, the people referred to him simply as Phaendin Ton (“the first reign”), to his son as Phaendin Klang (“the middle reign”). Continuing this system consequently, his grandson Rama III would have been “the last reign”. To avoid this inauspicious title, he ended this practice by donating two Buddha statues that were placed to the sides of the Emerald Buddha at Wat Phra Kaeo and dedicated one each to his father and grandfather. He demanded to refer to his two predecessors using the names of these Buddha statues. The one dedicated to the first Chakri king was named Phra Phutthayotfa Chulalok (“the Buddha on top of the sky and the crown of the worlds”). This is how this king is still referred to in Thai history books.

His descendant Vajiravudh (Rama VI) who had studied in England, realized that most Siamese kings’ names were difficult to reproduce and remember for Westerners. He therefore disposed to use for all kings of the Chakri dynasty the name Rama together with the respective ordinal number. So this king is Rama I in Western literature. In 1982, 200 years after his accession, the Thai cabinet decided to award him the epithet Maharat (“The Great”).

In 1767, after dominating southeast Asia for almost 400 years, the Ayutthaya Kingdom was brought down by invading Burmese armies. Despite its complete defeat and occupation by Burma, Siam made a rapid recovery. The resistance to Burmese rule was led by a noble of Chinese descent, Taksin, a capable military leader. Initially based at Chanthaburi in the south-east, within a year he had defeated the Burmese occupation army and re-established a Siamese state with its capital at Thonburi on the west bank of the Chao Phraya, 20 kilometers from the sea. In 1768 he was crowned as King Taksin (now officially known as Taksin the Great). He rapidly re-united the central Thai heartlands under his rule, and in 1769 he also occupied western Cambodia.

He then marched south and re-established Siamese rule over the Malay Peninsula as far south as Penang and Terengganu. Having secured his base in Siam, Taksin attacked the Burmese in the north in 1774 and captured Chiang Mai in 1776, permanently uniting Siam and Lanna. Taksin’s leading general in this campaign was Thong Duang, known by the title Chaophraya or Lord Chakri. Chakri was himself a descendant of Mon people, sharing lineage with the House of Sisowath where his father served in the royal court in the Kingdom of Ayutthaya. In 1778, Chakri led a Siamese army which captured Vientiane. Luang Phrabang, a northern Lao kingdom , also submitted. Chakri eventually established Siamese domination over Laotian kingdoms.

Despite these successes, by 1779 Taksin was in political trouble at home. He seems to have developed a religious mania, alienating the powerful Buddhist monkhood by claiming to be a sotapanna or divine figure. He was also in trouble with court officials, Chinese merchants, and missionaries. Foreign observers began to speculate that he would soon be overthrown.

In 1782 Taksin sent his armies under Chakri to invade Cambodia, but while they were away a rebellion broke out in the area around the capital. The rebels, who had wide popular support, offered the throne to General Chakri, the “supreme general”. He marched back from Cambodia and deposed Taksin, who was purportedly secretly executed shortly after.

Phra Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke พระพุทธยอดฟ้าจุฬาโลก King Rama I

Phra Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke
King Rama I

Chakri ruled under the name Ramathibodi (he was posthumously given the name Phutthayotfa Chulalok). One of his first decisions was to move the capital across the river to the village of Bang Makok (meaning “place of olive plums”), which soon became the city of Bangkok. The new capital was located on the island of Rattanakosin, protected from attack by the river to the west and by a series of canals to the north, east and south. Siam thus acquired both its current dynasty and its current capital.

Before Bangkok became the capital of Thailand, the capital city was Thonburi. The old city straddled the Chao Phraya, but was mainly settled on the western bank where the royal palace and other institutions were situated. The eastern bank was mostly home to Chinese and Vietnamese (forced) settlers. When Rama I established himself as king, he re-established the capital on the more strategic eastern bank of the river called Rattanakosin Island, relocating the prior Chinese who had settled there to the area around Wat Sam Pluem and Wat Sampheng. The area is now Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown.

Fortifications were ordered to be rebuilt, and canals extended to form moats around the fortified city. The inner moat, created by connecting Rong Mai Canal and Talat Canal, is now known as Khlong Khu Mueang Doem (literally, “old city moat canal”). Khlong Rop Krung (“canal encircling city”) was merged from Bang Lamphu and Ong Ang Canals. The area enclosed by Khlong Khu Mueang Doem and the river is referred to as Inner Rattanakosin, while Outer Rattanakosin refers to the originally less developed area between the two canals. Two further small canals known as Khlong Lot (“tube/straw canal”) connect the inner and outer moats.

The formal date of the city’s establishment is counted to the erection of the city pillar on April 21, 1782. The year would later mark the start of the Rattanakosin Era after calendar reforms by King Rama V in 1888. Rama I named the new city Krung Rattanakosin In Ayothaya (กรุงรัตนโกสินทร์อินท์อโยธยา). This was later modified by King Nangklao to Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintha-ayutthaya. While settlements on both banks were commonly called Bangkok, both the Burney Treaty of 1826 and the Roberts Treaty of 1833 refer to the capital as the City of Sia-Yut’hia. King Mongkut (Rama IV) would later give the city its full ceremonial name:

Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphiman-Awatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit (กรุงเทพมหานคร อมรรัตนโกสินทร์ มหินทรายุทธยา มหาดิลกภพ นพรัตนราชธานีบุรีรมย์ อุดมราชนิเวศน์มหาสถาน อมรพิมานอวตารสถิต สักกะทัตติยะวิษณุกรรมประสิทธิ์)

Rama I modelled his city after the former capital of Ayutthaya, with the Grand Palace, Front Palace and royal temples by the river, next to the royal field (now Sanam Luang). Continuing outwards were the royal court of justice, royal stables and military prison. Government offices were located within the Grand Palace, while residences of nobles were concentrated south of the palace walls. Settlements spread outwards from the city centre.

The new capital is referred to in Thai sources as Rattanakosin, a name shared by the Siamese kingdom of this historical period. The name Krung Thep and Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, both shortened forms of the full ceremonial name, began to be used near the end of the nineteenth century. Foreigners, however, continued to refer to the city by the name Bangkok, which has seen continued use until this day.

At the time of the city’s foundation, most of the population lived by the river or the canals, often in floating houses on the water. Waterways served as the main method of transportation, and farming communities depended on them for irrigation. Outside the city walls, settlements sprawled along both river banks. Forced settlers, mostly captives of war, also formed several ethnic communities outside the city walls. Large numbers of Chinese immigrants continued to settle in Bangkok, especially during the early nineteenth century. Such was their prominence that Europeans visiting in the 1820s estimated that they formed over half of the city population. The Chinese excelled in trade, and led the development of a market economy. The Chinese settlement at Sampheng had become a bustling market by 1835.

View of the city of Bangkok, 1822

View of the city of Bangkok, 1822

Rama I restored most of the social and political system of the Ayutthaya kingdom, promulgating new law codes, reinstating court ceremonies and imposing discipline on the Buddhist monkhood. His government was carried out by six great ministries (Krom) headed by royal princes. Four of these administered particular territories: the Kalahom the south; the Mahatthai the north and east; the Phrakhlang the area immediately south of the capital; and the Krom Mueang, the area around Bangkok. The other two were the ministry of lands (Krom Na) and the ministry of the royal court (Krom Wang). The army was controlled by the King’s deputy and brother, the Uparat.

The Burmese, seeing the disorder accompanying the overthrow of Taksin, invaded Siam again in 1785. The Burmese-Siamese War (1785–1786), also known in Siam as the “Nine Armies War” because the Burmese came in nine armies, broke out. The Burmese soldiers poured into Lanna and Northern Siam. Siamese forces, commanded by Kawila, Prince of Lampang, put up a brave fight and delayed the Burmese advance, all the while waiting for reinforcements from Bangkok. When Phitsanulok was captured, Anurak Devesh the Rear Palace, and Rama I himself led Siamese forces to the north. The Siamese relieved Lampang from the Burmese siege.

In the south, Bodawpaya was waiting at Chedi Sam Ong ready to attack. The Front Palace was ordered to lead his troops to the south and counter-attack the Burmese coming to Ranong through Nakhon Si Thammarat. He brought the Burmese to battle near Kanchanaburi. The Burmese also attacked Thalang (Phuket), where the governor had just died. His wife Chan, and her sister Mook, gathered the local people and successfully defended Thalang against the Burmese. Today, Chan and Mook are revered as heroines because of their opposition to the Burmese invasions. In their own lifetimes, Rama I bestowed on them the titles Thao Thep Kasattri and Thao Sri Sunthon.

The Burmese proceeded to capture Songkhla. Upon hearing the news, the governors of Phatthalung fled. However, a monk named Phra Maha encouraged the citizens of the area to take up arms against the Burmese, his campaign was also successful. Phra Maha was later raised to the nobility by Rama I.

As his armies were destroyed, Bodawpaya retreated. The next year, he attacked again, this time constituting his troops as a single army. With this force Bodawpaya passed through the Three Pagoda Pass and settled in Ta Din Dang (Three Pagoda Pass.) The Front Palace marched the Siamese forces to face Bodawpaya. The fighting was very short and Bodawpaya was quickly defeated. This short war was called the “Ta Din Dang campaign”.  This was the last major Burmese invasion of Siam, although as late as 1802 Burmese forces had to be driven out of Lanna.

In 1792, the Siamese occupied Luang Prabang and brought most of Laos under indirect Siamese rule. Cambodia was also effectively ruled by Siam. By the time of his death in 1809, Rama I had created a Siamese overlordship dominating an area considerably larger than modern Thailand.

Phra Buddha Loetla Nabhalai พระพุทธเลิศหล้านภาลัย King Rama II

Phra Buddha Loetla Nabhalai
King Rama II

The reign of Rama I’s son Phutthaloetla Naphalai (now known as King Rama II) was relatively uneventful. The Chakri family now controlled all branches of Siamese government — since Rama I had 42 children, his brother the Uparat had 43 and Rama II had 73, there was no shortage of royal princes to staff the bureaucracy, the army, the senior monkhood and the provincial governments. Most of these were the children of concubines and thus not eligible to inherit the throne. There was a confrontation with Vietnam, now becoming a major power in the region, over control of Cambodia in 1813, ending with the status quo restored. But during Rama II’s reign western influences again began to be felt in Siam.

In 1786, the British East India Company occupied Penang, and in 1819 they founded Singapore. Soon the British displaced the Dutch and Portuguese as the main western economic and political influence in Siam. The British objected to the Siamese economic system, in which trading monopolies were held by royal princes and businesses were subject to arbitrary taxation. In 1821, the East India Company’s Lord Hastings, then Governor-General of India, sent Company agent John Crawfurd on a mission to negotiate a new trade agreement with Siam — the first sign of an issue which was to dominate nineteenth century Siamese politics.

Nangklao นั่งเกล้า King Rama III

King Rama III

Rama II died in 1824 and was peacefully succeeded by his son Prince Jessadabondindra, who reigned as King Phra Nangklao, now known as Rama III. Rama II’s younger son, Mongkut, was “suggested” to become a monk, removing him from politics.

In 1825, the British sent another mission to Bangkok led by East India Company emissary Henry Burney. They had by now annexed southern Burma and were thus Siam’s neighbors to the west, and they were also extending their control over Malaya. The King was reluctant to give in to British demands, but his advisors warned him that Siam would meet the same fate as Burma unless the British were accommodated. In 1826, therefore, Siam concluded its first commercial treaty with a western power, the Burney Treaty. Under the treaty, Siam agreed to establish a uniform taxation system, to reduce taxes on foreign trade and to abolish some of the royal monopolies. As a result, Siam’s trade increased rapidly, many more foreigners settled in Bangkok, and western cultural influences began to spread. The kingdom became wealthier and its army better armed.

A Lao rebellion led by Anouvong was defeated in 1827, following which Siam destroyed Vientiane, carried out massive forced population transfers from Laos to the more securely held area of Isaan, and divided the Lao mueang into smaller units to prevent another uprising. In 1842–1845, Siam waged a successful war with Vietnam, which tightened Siamese rule over Cambodia. Rama III’s most visible legacy in Bangkok is the Wat Pho temple complex, which he enlarged and endowed with new temples.

A map of Bangkok in the 1820s; from the journal of the diplomatic mission to Siam and Cochin-China by John Crawfurd

A map of Bangkok in the 1820s; from the journal of the diplomatic mission to Siam and Cochin-China by John Crawfurd

Rama III regarded his brother Mongkut, who was said to be very popular among the British, as his heir, although as a monk Mongkut could not openly assume this role. He used his long sojourn as a monk to acquire a western education from French and American missionaries, and British merchants, one of the first Siamese to do so. He learned English and Latin, and studied science and mathematics. The missionaries no doubt hoped to convert him to Christianity, but in fact he was a strict Buddhist and a Siamese nationalist. He intended using this western knowledge to strengthen and modernize Siam when he came to the throne, which he did in 1851.

By the 1840s, it was obvious that Siamese independence was in danger from the colonial powers: this was shown dramatically by the British First Opium War with China in 1839–1842. In 1850, the British and Americans sent missions to Bangkok demanding the end of all restrictions on trade, the establishment of a western-style government and immunity for their citizens from Siamese law (extraterritoriality). Rama III’s government refused these demands, leaving his successor with a dangerous situation. Rama III reportedly said on his deathbed: “[T]here will be no more wars with Burma and Vietnam. We will have them only with the West.”

Economically, from its foundation, the Rattanakosin Kingdom witnessed the growing role of Chinese merchants, a policy that started with King Taksin, himself the son of a Chinese merchant. Beside merchants, Chinese who were farmers, endlessly came to seek fortune in the new kingdom. The Rattanakosin’s rulers welcomed the Chinese, due to their source of economic revival. Some ethnic Chinese merchants became the court officials, holding crucial positions. Chinese culture such as literature was accepted and promoted. Many Chinese works were translated by ethnic Chinese court dignitaries.Siam’s relationship with the Chinese Empire was strong. Rama I claimed his blood-relation with Taksin, worrying that the Chinese court might reject his approval. The relationship was guaranteed by the tributary missions, continuing until the Rama IV’s reign. Thus Chinese played a very crucial role in the revival of Rattanakosin kingdom.

Mongkut มงกุฎ King Rama IV

King Rama IV

Mongkut came to the throne as Rama IV in 1851, determined to prevent Siam from falling under colonial domination by forcing modernization on his reluctant subjects. Although he was in theory an absolute monarch, his power was limited. Having been a monk for 27 years, he lacked a base among the powerful royal princes, and did not have a modern state apparatus to carry out his wishes. His first attempts at reform, to establish a modern system of administration and to improve the status of debt-slaves and women, were frustrated.

During his reign, industrialization began taking place in Bangkok, which saw the introduction of the steam engine, modern shipbuilding and the printing press. Influenced by the Western community, Charoen Krung Road, the city’s first paved street, was constructed in 1862–64. This was followed by Bamrung Mueang, Fueang Nakhon, Trong (now Rama IV) and Si Lom Roads. Land transport would later surpass the canals in importance, shifting people’s homes from floating dwellings toward permanent buildings. The limits of the city proper were also expanded during his reign, extending to the Phadung Krung Kasem Canal, dug in 1851.

National ensign decreed by King Mongkut (Rama IV) - A white elephant, facing the hoist, centered on a red field.

National ensign decreed by King Mongkut (Rama IV) – A white elephant, facing the hoist, centered on a red field.

Rama IV thus came to welcome western intrusion in Siam. Indeed, the king himself and his entourages were actively pro-British. This came in 1855 in the form of a mission led by the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, who arrived in Bangkok with demands for immediate changes, backed by the threat of force. The King readily agreed to his demand for a new treaty, called the Bowring Treaty, which restricted import duties to 3%, abolished royal trade monopolies, and granted extraterritoriality to British subjects. Other western powers soon demanded and got similar concessions.

The king soon came to consider that the real threat to Siam came from the French, not the British. The British were interested in commercial advantage, the French in building a colonial empire. They occupied Saigon in 1859, and 1867 established a protectorate over southern Vietnam and eastern Cambodia. Rama IV hoped that the British would defend Siam if he gave them the economic concessions they demanded. In the next reign this would prove to be an illusion, but it is true that the British saw Siam as a useful buffer state between British Burma and French Indochina.

Chulalongkorn จุฬาลงกรณ์ King Rama V

King Rama V

Rama IV died in 1868, and was succeeded by his 15-year-old son Chulalongkorn, who reigned as Rama V and is now known as Rama the Great. Rama V was the first Siamese king to have a full western education, having been taught by a British governess, Anna Leonowens — whose place in Siamese history has been fictionalized as The King and I. At first Rama V’s reign was dominated by the conservative regent, Chaophraya Si Suriyawongse, but when the king came of age in 1873 he soon took control. He created a Privy Council and a Council of State, a formal court system and budget office. He announced that slavery would be gradually abolished and debt-bondage restricted.

At first the princes and other conservatives successfully resisted the king’s reform agenda, but as the older generation was replaced by younger and western-educated princes, resistance faded. The king could always argue that the only alternative was foreign rule. He found powerful allies in his brothers Prince Chakkraphat, whom he made finance minister, Prince Damrong, who organised interior government and education, and his brother-in-law Prince Devrawongse, foreign minister for 38 years. In 1887, Devrawonge visited Europe to study government systems. On his recommendation the king established Cabinet government, an audit office and an education department. The semi-autonomous status of Chiang Mai was ended and the army was reorganized and modernized.

In 1893, the French authorities in Indochina used a minor border dispute to provoke a crisis. French gunboats appeared at Bangkok, and demanded the cession of Lao territories east of the Mekong. The King appealed to the British, but the British minister told the King to settle on whatever terms he could get, and he had no choice but to comply. Britain’s only gesture was an agreement with France guaranteeing the integrity of the rest of Siam. In exchange, Siam had to give up its claim to the Tai-speaking Shan region of north-eastern Burma to the British.

The French, however, continued to pressure Siam, and in 1906–1907 they manufactured another crisis. This time Siam had to concede French control of territory on the west bank of the Mekong opposite Luang Prabang and around Champasak in southern Laos, as well as western Cambodia. The British interceded to prevent more French pressure on Siam, but their price, in 1909 was the acceptance of British sovereignty over of Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu under Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909. All of these “lost territories” were on the fringes of the Siamese sphere of influence and had never been securely under their control, but being compelled to abandon all claim to them was a substantial humiliation to both king and country (historian David K. Wyatt describes Chulalongkorn as “broken in spirit and health” following the 1893 crisis) and is the basis for the change in the name of the country; with the loss of these territories Great Siam was now no more, the king now ruled only the core Thai lands. In the early twentieth century these crises were adopted by the increasingly nationalist government as symbols of the need for the country to assert itself against the West and its neighbors.

Meanwhile, reform continued apace transforming an absolute monarchy based on relationships of power into a modern, centralized nation state. The process was increasingly under the control of Rama V’s sons, who were all educated in Europe. Railways and telegraph lines united the previously remote and semi-autonomous provinces. The currency was tied to the gold standard and a modern system of taxation replaced the arbitrary exactions and labor service of the past. The biggest problem was the shortage of trained civil servants, and many foreigners had to be employed until new schools could be built and Siamese graduates produced. By 1910, when the King died, Siam had become at least a semi-modern country, and continued to escape colonial rule.

With Chulalongkorn’s reforms, governance of Bangkok and the surrounding areas, established as Monthon Krung Thep Phra Mahanakhon (มณฑลกรุงเทพพระมหานคร), came under the Ministry of Urban Affairs (Nakhonban). During his reign many more canals and roads were built, expanding the urban reaches of the capital. Infrastructure was developed, with the introduction of railway and telegraph services between Bangkok and Samut Prakan and then expanding countrywide. Electricity was introduced, first to palaces and government offices, then to serve electric trams in the capital and later the general public. The King’s fascination with the West was reflected in the royal adoption of Western dress and fashions, but most noticeably in architecture. He commissioned the construction of the neoclassical Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall at the new Dusit Palace, which was linked to the historic city centre by the grand Ratchadamnoen Avenue, inspired by the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Examples of Western influence in architecture became visible throughout the city.

Vajiravudh วชิราวุธ King Rama VI

King Rama VI

One of Rama V’s reforms was to introduce a western-style law of royal succession, so in 1910 he was peacefully succeeded by his son Vajiravudh, who reigned as Rama VI. He had been educated at Sandhurst military academy and at Oxford, and was an anglicized Edwardian gentleman. Indeed, one of Siam’s problems was the widening gap between the westernized royal family and upper aristocracy and the rest of the country. It took another 20 years for western education to extend to the rest of the bureaucracy and the army: a potential source of conflict.

There had been some political reform under Rama V, but the king was still an absolute monarch, who acted as the head of the cabinet and staffed all the agencies of the state with his own relatives. The new king Vajiravudh, the son of Rama V, with his British education, knew that the rest of the “new” nation could not be excluded from government forever, but he had no faith in western- style democracy. He applied his observation of the success of the British monarchy in ruling of India, appearing more in public and instituting more royal ceremonies. However Rama VI also carried on his father’s modernization plan. Polygamy was abolished, primary education made compulsory, and in 1916 higher education came to Siam with the founding of Chulalongkorn University, which in time became the seedbed of a new Siamese intelligentsia.

Bangkok became more and more the capital of the new nation of Siam. Rama VI’s government began several “nationwide” development projects, despite the financial hardship. New roads, bridges, railways, hospitals and schools mushroomed throughout the country with national budget from Bangkok. The newly created Viceroys were appointed to the newly restructured ‘Region’, or Monthon (Circle), as the King’s agent supervising administrative affairs in the provinces.

Another solution he found was to establish the Wild Tiger Corps, or Kong Sua Paa (กองเสือป่า,) a paramilitary organization of Siamese of “good character” united to further the nation’s cause. He also created a junior branch which continues today as the National Scout Organization of Thailand. The King spent much time on the development of the movements as he saw it as an opportunity to create a bond between himself and loyal citizens; volunteer corps willing to make sacrifices for the king and the nation. It was also a way to single out and honor his favorites. At first the Wild Tigers were drawn from the king’s personal entourage (it is likely that many joined to gain favor with Vajiravudh), but an enthusiasm among the population arose later.

Of the adult movement, a German observer wrote in September 1911:

“This is a troop of volunteers in black uniform, drilled in a more or less military fashion, but without weapons. The British Scouts are apparently the paradigm for the Tiger Corps. In the whole country, at the most far-away places, units of this corps are being set up. One would hardly recognise the quiet and phlegmatic Siamese.”

The paramilitary movement largely disappeared by 1927, but was revived and evolved into the Volunteer Defense Corps, also called the Village Scouts (ลูกเสือบ้าน).

Baedeker map of Bangkok, 1914

Baedeker map of Bangkok, 1914

Vajiravudh’s style of government differed from that of his father. In the beginning of the sixth reign, the king continued to use his father’s team and there was no sudden break in the daily routine of government. Much of the running of daily affairs was therefore in the hands of experienced and competent men. To them and their staff Siam owed many progressive steps, such as the development of a national plan for the education of the whole populace, the setting up of clinics where free vaccination was given against smallpox, and the continuing expansion of railways.

However, senior posts were gradually filled with members of the King’s coterie when a vacancy occurred through death, retirement, or resignation. By 1915, half the cabinet consisted of new faces. Most notable was Chao Phraya Yomarat’s presence and Prince Damrong’s absence. He resigned from his post as Minister of the Interior officially because of ill health, but in actuality because of friction between himself and the king.

In 1917 Siam declared war on German Empire and Austria-Hungary, mainly to gain favor with the British and the French. Siam’s token participation in World War I secured it a seat at the Versailles Peace Conference, and Foreign Minister Devawongse used this opportunity to argue for the repeal of the nineteenth century treaties and the restoration of full Siamese sovereignty. The United States obliged in 1920, while France and Britain delayed until 1925. This victory gained the king some popularity, but it was soon undercut by discontent over other issues, such as his extravagance, which became more noticeable when a sharp postwar recession hit Siam in 1919. There was also the fact that the king had no son; he obviously preferred the company of men to women (a matter which of itself did not much concern Siamese opinion, but which did undermine the stability of the monarchy because of the absence of heirs).

Thus when Rama VI died suddenly in 1925, aged only 44, the monarchy was already in a weakened state. He was succeeded by his younger brother Prajadhipok.

Prajadhipok ประชาธิปก King Rama VII

King Rama VII

Unprepared for his new responsibilities, all Prajadhipok had in his favor was a lively intelligence, a certain diplomacy in his dealings with others, a modesty and industrious willingness to learn, and the somewhat tarnished, but still potent, magic of the crown.

Unlike his predecessor, the king diligently read virtually all state papers that came his way, from ministerial submissions to petitions by citizens. Within half a year only three of Vajiravhud’s twelve ministers stayed on, the rest having been replaced by members of the royal family. On the one hand, these appointments brought back men of talent and experience, on the other, it signaled a return to royal oligarchy. The King obviously wanted to demonstrate a clear break with the discredited sixth reign, and the choice of men to fill the top positions appeared to be guided largely by a wish to restore a Chulalongkorn-type government.

The initial legacy that Prajadhipok received from his elder brother were problems of the sort that had become chronic in the Sixth Reign. The most urgent of these was the economy: the finances of the state were in chaos, the budget heavily in deficit, and the royal accounts an accountant’s nightmare of debts and questionable transactions. That the rest of the world was deep in the Great Depression following World War I did not help the situation either.

Virtually the first act of Prajadipok as king entailed an institutional innovation intended to restore confidence in the monarchy and government, the creation of the Supreme Council of the State. This privy council was made up of a number of experienced and extremely competent members of the royal family, including the longtime Minister of the Interior (and Chulalongkorn’s right-hand man) Prince Damrong. Gradually these princes arrogated increasing power by monopolising all the main ministerial positions. Many of them felt it their duty to make amends for the mistakes of the previous reign, but it was not generally appreciated.

With the help of this council, the king managed to restore stability to the economy, although at a price of making a significant amount of the civil servants redundant and cutting the salary of those that remained. This was obviously unpopular among the officials, and was one of the trigger events for the coup of 1932.

Prajadhipok then turned his attention to the question of future politics in Siam. Inspired by the British example, the King wanted to allow the common people to have a say in the country’s affair by the creation of a parliament. A proposed constitution was ordered to be drafted, but the King’s wishes were rejected by his advisers, who felt that the population was not yet ready for democracy.

In 1932, with the country deep in depression, the Supreme Council opted to introduce cuts in official spending, including the military budget. The King foresaw that these policies might create discontent, especially in the army, and he therefore convened a special meeting of officials to explain why the cuts were necessary. In his address he stated the following:

“I myself know nothing at all about finances, and all I can do is listen to the opinions of others and choose the best… If I have made a mistake, I really deserve to be excused by the people of Siam.”

No previous monarch of Siam had ever spoken in such terms. Many interpreted the speech not as Prajadhipok apparently intended, namely as a frank appeal for understanding and co-operation. They saw it as a sign of his weakness and evidence that a system which perpetuated the rule of fallible autocrats should be abolished. Serious political disturbances were threatened in the capital, and in April the king agreed to introduce a constitution under which he would share power with a prime minister. This was not enough for the radical elements in the army, however. On June 24, 1932, while the king was holidaying at the seaside, the Bangkok garrison mutinied and seized power, led by a group of 49 officers known as “the Promoters”.

The People’s Party demanded Prajadhipok become a constitutional monarch and grant Thai people a constitution. In the event of a negative response, they reserved the right to declare Siam a republic. The king immediately accepted the People’s Party’s request and the first “permanent” constitution of Siam was promulgated on December 10, 1932.

Prajadhipok returned to Bangkok on June 26 and received the coup plotters in a royal audience. As they entered the room, Prajadhipok greeted them, saying “I rise in honor of the Khana Ratsadorn.” It was a significant gesture because, according to previous royal rituals, monarchs were to remain seated while their subjects made obeisance. Prajadhipok was acknowledging the changed circumstances. Thus ended 800 years of absolute monarchy since its origin.

The king’s relations with the People’s Party deteriorated quickly, particularly after the ousting of Phraya Manopakorn Nititada as prime minister by the Khana Ratsadon’s leader Phraya Phahol Phonphayuhasena.

In October 1933, the maverick Prince Boworadej, a popular former minister of defence who had resigned from Prajadhipok’s cabinet in protest over the budget cuts, led an armed revolt against the government. In the Boworadet Rebellion, he mobilized several provincial garrisons and marched on Bangkok, occupying the Don Mueang aerodome. Prince Boworadej accused the government of being disrespectful to the monarch and of promoting communism, and demanded that government leaders resign. Boworadej had hoped that garrisons in the Bangkok would support him, but their commander ensured that they remained loyal to the government. The Royal Thai Navy declared itself neutral and left for its bases in the south. After heavy fighting near Don Mueang, the ammunition-short Boworadej forces were defeated and the prince himself fled to exile in French Indochina.

There is no evidence that Prajadhipok gave any support to the rebellion. Nevertheless, the insurrection diminished the king’s prestige. When the revolt began, Prajadhipok immediately informed the government that he regretted the strife and civil disturbances. The royal couple then took refuge at Songkhla, in the far south. The king’s withdrawal from the scene was interpreted by the Khana Ratsadorn as a failure to do his duty. By not throwing his full support behind government forces, he had undermined their trust in him.

In 1934, the Assembly voted to amend civil and military penal codes. One of the proposed changes would allow death sentences to be carried out without the king’s approval. The king protested, and in two letters submitted to the Assembly said that ending this time-honoured custom would make the people think that the government desired the right to sign death warrants to eliminate political opponents. As a compromise he proposed holding a national referendum on the issue.

Many in the Assembly were angered. They felt the king was implying that the Assembly did not actually represent the will of the people and voted to re-affirm the penal code changes.

Prajadhipok, whose relations with the Khana Ratsadorn had been deteriorating for some time, went on a tour of Europe before visiting England for medical treatment. He continued to correspond with the government regarding the conditions under which he would continue to serve. As well as retaining some traditional royal prerogatives, such as granting pardons, he was anxious to mitigate the increasingly undemocratic nature of the new regime. Agreement was reached on the penal codes, but Prajadhipok indicated he was unwilling to return home until guarantees were made for his safety, and the constitution was amended to make the Assembly an entirely elected body. The government refused to comply, and on October 14, Prajadhipok announced his intention to abdicate unless his requests were met.

The People’s Party rejected the ultimatum, and on March 2, 1935, Prajadhipok abdicated, to be replaced by Ananda Mahidol. Prajadhipok issued a brief statement criticizing the regime that included the following phrases, since often quoted by critics of Thailand’s slow political development, “I am willing to surrender the powers I formerly exercised to the people as a whole, but I am not willing to turn them over to any individual or any group to use in an autocratic manner without heeding the voice of the people.”

As an idealistic democrat, the former king had good grounds for complaint. The Executive Committee and Cabinet did not seem eager to develop an atmosphere of debate or to be guided by resolutions of the Assembly.

Reaction to the abdication was muted. Everybody was afraid of what might happen next. The government refrained from challenging any assertions in the king’s abdication statement for fear of arousing further controversy. Opponents of the government kept quiet because they felt intimidated and forsaken by the king whom they regarded as the only person capable of standing up to the regime. In other words, the absolutism of the monarchy had been replaced by that of the People’s Party, with the military looming in the wings as the ultimate arbiter of power.

King Prajadhipok decided to abstain from exercising his prerogative to name a successor to the throne. By that time, the crown had already passed from Prince Mahidol’s line to that of his half-brother’s when his eldest full brother, Crown Prince Maha Vajirunhis, died as a teenager during King Chulalongkorn’s reign. A half-brother, Prince Vajiravudh (as the next eldest) replaced Prince Vajirunhis as the crown prince. He eventually succeeded to the throne in 1910 as King Rama VI. In 1924 the king instituted the Palace Law of Succession in order to govern subsequent successions. The law gave priority to the children of his mother Queen Regent Saovabha Phongsri over the children of King Chulalongkorn’s two other royal wives. The law was enacted on the death of King Vajiravudh in 1925 and the crown passed to his youngest brother, Prince Prajadhipok of Sukhothai.

Offering the throne to Prince Prajadhipok was not without a debate. In doing so, another candidate was bypassed: Prince Chula Chakrabongse, son of the late Field Marshal Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath of Phitsanulok, who before his death had been the heir-apparent to King Vajiravudh. It was questioned whether the Succession Law enacted by King Vajiravudh actually barred Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath (and for that matter, Prince Chula Chakrabongse) from succession on the grounds that he married a foreigner (Russian). However, his marriage had taken place before this law was enacted and had been endorsed by King Chulalongkorn himself. There was no clear resolution, but in the end the many candidates were passed over and Prince Prajadhipok was enthroned.

When King Prajadhipok later abdicated, since he was the last remaining son of Queen Saovabha, the crown went back to the sons of the queen whose rank was next to hers: Queen Savang Vadhana, mother of the late Crown Prince Vajirunahis. Besides the late crown prince, she had two more sons who survived to adulthood: Prince Sommatiwongse Varodaya of Nakhon Si Thammarat, who had died without a son in 1899, and Prince Mahidol who, although deceased, had two living sons. It thus appeared that Prince Ananda Mahidol would be the first person in the royal line of succession.

Nevertheless, the same debate over the half-foreign Prince Chula Chakrabongse occurred again. It was argued that King Vajiravudh had virtually exempted the prince’s father from the ban in the Succession Law, and the crown might thus be passed to him.

However, since the kingdom was now governed under a constitution, it was the cabinet that would decide. Opinion was split on the right to succession of Prince Chula Chakrabongse. A key figure was Pridi Phanomyong, who persuaded the cabinet that the Law should be interpreted as excluding the prince from succession, and that Prince Ananda Mahidol should be the next king. It also appeared more convenient for the government to have a monarch who was only nine years old and studying in Switzerland. On March 2, 1935, Prince Ananda Mahidol was elected by the National Assembly and the Thai government to succeed his uncle, King Prajadhipok, as the eighth king of the Chakri Dynasty.

Ananda Mahidol อานันทมหิดล King Rama VIII

Ananda Mahidol
King Rama VIII

As the new king was still a child and was then studying in Switzerland, the National Assembly appointed Colonel Prince Anuwatjaturong, Lieutenant Commander Prince Artit Thip-apa, and Chao Phraya Yommaraj (Pun Sukhum) as his regents. In 1938, at age thirteen, Ananda Mahidol visited the Kingdom of Siam for the first time as its monarch. The king was accompanied during his visit by his mother and his younger brother, Bhumibol Adulyadej. Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram was prime minister at the time and during most of Ananda Mahidol’s brief reign (Pibulsonggram is remembered for being a military dictator and, in 1939, for changing the name of the country from Siam to Thailand). Late in 1940, Pibulsonggram involved Thailand in the indecisive “Franco–Thai War” against the Vichy forces in French Indochina.

On December 8 1941, in concert with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces invaded and occupied Thailand. Ananda Mahidol was away from the country, the king was returning to Switzerland to complete his studies, and Pridi Phanomyong served as regent in his absence. From January 24, 1942, occupied Thailand became a formal ally of the Empire of Japan and a member of the Axis. Under Plaek Pibulsonggram, Thailand declared war on the Allied powers. The regent refused to sign the declaration and it was thus legally invalid. Many members of the Thai government, including the Siamese embassy in Japan, acted as de facto spies in the Seri Thai underground on the side of the Allies, funneling secret information to British intelligence and the US Office of Strategic Services.

During World War II, Bangkok was subject to Japanese occupation. By 1944, it was apparent that Japan was going to lose the war. Bangkok suffered heavily from the Allied bombing raids. These, plus economic hardships, made the war and the government of Plaek Pibulsonggram very unpopular. In July, Plaek Pibulsonggram was ousted by the Seri Thai-infiltrated government. The National Assembly reconvened and appointed the liberal lawyer Khuang Aphaiwong prime minister. Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, and Allied military responsibility for Thailand fell to Britain. British and Indian troops landed in September, and during their brief occupation of the city disarmed the Japanese troops.

Only after the end of World War II could Ananda Mahidol return to Thailand. He returned for a second visit in December 1945 with a degree in law. Despite his youth and inexperience, he quickly won the hearts of the Thai people, who had continued to revere the monarchy through the upheavals of the 1930s and 1940s. He was a handsome young man and the Thai were delighted to have their king amongst them once again. One of his well-remembered activities was a highly successful visit to Bangkok’s Chinatown Sam Peng Lane (ซอยสำเพ็ง), which was intended to defuse the post-war tensions that lingered between Bangkok’s ethnic Chinese and Thai people.

Foreign observers, however, believed that Ananda Mahidol did not really want to be king and felt his reign would not last long. Louis Mountbatten, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, the British commander in Southeast Asia, visited Bangkok in January 1946 and described the king as “a frightened, short-sighted boy, his sloping shoulders and thin chest behung with gorgeous diamond-studded decorations, altogether a pathetic and lonely figure”. At a public function, Mountbatten wrote: “[H]is nervousness increased to such an alarming extent, that I came very close to support him in case he passed out”.

On June 9, 1946, the king was found shot dead in his bedroom in the Boromphiman Throne Hall (a modern residential palace located in the Grand Palace), only four days before he was scheduled to return to Switzerland to finish his doctoral degree in law at the University of Lausanne. He was succeeded by his brother, Bhumibol Adulyadej (ภูมิพลอดุลยเดช), becoming the ninth monarch of Thailand from the Chakri dynasty as Rama IX.

Bhumibol Adulyadej ภูมิพลอดุลยเดช King Rama IX

Bhumibol Adulyadej
King Rama IX

Bhumibol succeeded his brother, but returned to Switzerland before the end of the 100-day mourning period. Despite his interest in science and technology, he changed his major and enrolled in law and political science to prepare for his duties as head of state. His uncle, Rangsit, Prince of Chainat, was appointed Prince Regent. In Bhumibol’s name, Prince Rangsit authorized a military coup that overthrew the government of Thamrongnawasawat in November 1947. The regent also signed the 1949 constitution, which returned to the monarchy many of the powers it had lost by the 1932 Revolution.

In December 1946, the Siamese government allocated several hundred thousand dollars for the ceremonial cremation of the remains of the late King Ananda, a necessary preliminary to the coronation of Bhumibol who was required by religious custom to light the funeral pyre. Unsettled conditions in 1947 following a coup d’état resulted in a postponement, and court astrologers determined that March 2, 1949 was the most auspicious date.

While finishing his degree in Switzerland, Bhumibol visited Paris frequently. It was in Paris that he first met Mom Rajawongse Sirikit Kitiyakara, daughter of the Thai ambassador to France (Nakkhatra Mangala) and a great-granddaughter of King Chulalongkorn and thus a cousin of Bhumibol. She was then 15 years old and training to be a concert pianist.

On October 4, 1948, while Bhumibol was driving a Fiat Topolino on the Geneva-Lausanne road, he collided with the rear of a braking truck 10 km outside Lausanne. He injured his back, suffered paralysis in half of his face and incurred cuts on his face that cost him the sight of his right eye. Both the royal cremation and coronation had to be postponed once more. While he was hospitalized in Lausanne, Sirikit visited him frequently. She met his mother, who asked her to continue her studies nearby so that Bhumibol could get to know her better. Bhumibol selected for her a boarding school in Lausanne, Riante Rive. A quiet engagement in Lausanne followed on  July 19, 1949, and they were married on April 28, 1950, just a week before his coronation. Their wedding was described by The New York Times as “the shortest, simplest royal wedding ever held in the land of gilded elephants and white umbrellas”. The ceremony was performed by Bhumibol’s ageing grandmother, Savang Vadhana.

After presiding over the long-delayed, ceremonial cremation of his brother Ananda Mahidol, Bhumibol was crowned King of Thailand on May 5, 1950, in the Baisal Daksin Throne Hall in the Grand Palace in Bangkok. It was the first coronation ceremony of a Thai sovereign to rule under the system of constitutional monarchy. During the ceremony, he pledged that he would “reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the Siamese people” (“เราจะครองแผ่นดินโดยธรรม เพื่อประโยชน์สุขแห่งมหาชนชาวสยาม”). Notable elements associated with the coronation included the Bahadrabith Throne beneath the Great White Umbrella of State; and he was presented with the royal regalia and utensils. On Coronation Day, Bhumibol’s consort was made Queen (Somdej Phra Boromarajini).

The royal couple spent their honeymoon at Hua Hin beach in southern Thailand before they returned to Switzerland, where the King completed his university studies. They returned to Thailand in 1951.

Following the death of his grandmother Queen Savang Vadhana, Bhumibol entered a 15-day monkhood (October 22 – November 5, 1956) at Wat Bowonniwet, as is customary for Buddhist males on the death of elder relatives. He was ordained by the Supreme Patriarch on October 22, 1956, at the Royal Chapel of the Emerald Buddha in the Grand Palace. During this time, Sirikit was appointed his regent. She was later appointed Queen Regent (Somdej Phra Boromarajininat) in recognition of this.

Although Bhumibol was sometimes referred to as King Rama IX in English, Thais referred to him as Nai Luang or Phra Chao Yu Hua (ในหลวง or พระเจ้าอยู่หัว), which translated to “the King” and “Lord Upon our Heads”, respectively. He was also called Chao Chiwit (“Lord of Life”). Formally, he was referred to as Phrabat Somdet Phra Chao Yu Hua (พระบาทสมเด็จพระเจ้าอยู่หัว) or, in legal documents, Phrabat Somdet Phra Paraminthara Maha Bhumibol Adulyadej (พระบาทสมเด็จพระปรมินทรมหาภูมิพลอดุลยเดช), and in English as His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He signed his name as ภูมิพลอดุลยเดช ป.ร. (Bhumibol Adulyadej Por Ror; this is the Thai equivalent of Bhumibol Adulyadej R[ex]).

In 1957, a military coup overthrew the government of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram with allegations of lèse-majesté, which is an offense against the dignity of the monarch, punishable under Thai law. This began a new and long-lasting relationship between the monarch and military, leading the king to condone the Thammasat University massacre in defense of his throne, and support a series of military dictatorships. Although Bhumibol did invite public criticism in a 2005 speech, the lèse majesté laws have not been revoked by the Thai parliament.

King Bhumibol was generally highly revered by the people in Thailand — many even saw him as close to divine. In 1987, he was conferred with the title King Bhumibol the Great. King Bhumibol Adulyadej died in Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand on October 13, 2016, 15:52 local time, at the age of 88, as announced by the royal palace later that day. The following day, his body was brought by motorcade to the Grand Palace for the customary bathing rite. Thousands of the mourning public lined the route showcasing their affections to him as he is widely recognized as “the King of Kings.” A year-long period of mourning is currently underway in Thailand and will end with cremation ceremonies in the fall of 2017.

Having reigned since June 9 1946, King Bhumibol was, at the time of his death, the world’s longest-serving head of state and the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history, serving for 70 years, 126 days. During his reign, he was served by a total of 30 prime ministers beginning with Pridi Banomyong and ending with Prayut Chan-o-cha.

Maha Vajiralongkorn มหาวชิราลงกรณ King Rama X

Maha Vajiralongkorn
King Rama X

King Bhumibol’s son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn was expected to succeed to the throne of Thailand but asked for time to mourn before taking the throne. On the night of December 1, 2016, the fiftieth day after the death of Bhumibol, Regent Prem Tinsulanonda led the heads of the country’s three branches of government to an audience with Vajiralongkorn to invite him to ascend to the throne as the tenth king of the Chakri dynasty. Vajiralongkorn accepted the invitation, saying in a televised statement: “I would like to accept in order to fulfil his majesty’s wishes and for the benefit of all Thais.” The government retroactively declared his reign to have begun upon his father’s death, but it will not crown him formally until after the cremation of his father.

His successor Vajiralongkorn does not share the popularity of his father, leading to concerns that the Thai monarchy will lose prestige and influence under the latter’s reign.

On April 2, 2006, Thailand Post released a block of four stamps portraying the still-existing buildings of Thonburi Palace. The block is listed in the Scott catalogue as #2227 with the individual 3-baht stamps receiving a minor letter: #2227a portrays the Throne Hall, #2227b shows King Taskin’s Shrine, #2227c pictures the two Chinese-style residences, and #2227d has an image of King Pinklao’s residence. These were printed on granite paper, perforated 14½x14. A souvenir sheet was also issued, including all four stamps but perforated 13½ (Scott #2227e). The souvenir sheet was sold at post offices for 17 baht.

Today, Thonburi Palace is known as Phra Racha Wang Derm (พระราชวังเดิม), literally “former palace.” This was the royal palace of King Taksin, who ruled the Siamese (Thai) kingdom of Thonburi following the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767. With the old capital of Ayutthaya in ruins, the newly crowned King Taksin decided to establish the new capital in the city of Thonburi, on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River opposite where Bangkok stands today.

The new king built his palace in Thonburi next to the old temple of Wat Arun (called Wat Chaeng at the time), which also placed it just behind the existing fortifications that guarded access to the kingdom’s ports. It was near the old Wichayen Fort and included Wat Chaen (Arun Rajawararam Temple) and Wat Tai Talad (Wat Molee Lokayaram) within its borders.  The remains of the palace consists of just one main building, an open air throne hall where audiences were held which is attached to the king’s main residence. There originally would have been many wooden residence buildings behind the throne hall, in the “inner court” area that was restricted to women and children.

Taksin’s reign ended in 1782 when he was overthrown by the general Chao Phraya Chakri, who became king. Rama I relocated the capital city proper to the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya (Rattanakosin), and had a new royal palace, the Grand Palace, built there. Taksin’s palace then became known as Phra Racha Wang Derm, or former palace. King Rama I reduced the area of the palace by excluding the two temples from the palace grounds.

As Thonburi was still strategically important, guarding Rattanakosin against invasions from the west, the king would place important royal family members, mostly their sons or brothers, at the palace. When Prince Chakrapadipongse, the last occupant, passed away in 1900, King Chulalongkorn graciously bestowed the palace to the Royal Thai Navy to be used as the site of the Naval Academy. Specific instructions were given to preserve ancient sites such as the Throne Hall, King Pinklao’s residence, King Taksin’s Shrine and the Whale Head Shrine. The Naval Academy remained at Phra Racha Wang Derm until 1944 when it was moved to Sattahip and Kledkaew. Then it was moved to its current location at Samutprakarn in 1952.The Academy building, which was originally built in western style, was remodeled into a Thai style and has housed the Royal Thai Navy Headquarters up to the present. The palace is now within the grounds of the Royal Thai Navy headquarters, and is jointly managed by the Phra Racha Wang Derm Restoration Foundation.

The buildings of the Thonburi Palace, with the throne hall on the left.

The buildings of the Thonburi Palace, with the throne hall on the left.

In contrast with the Grand Palace, Phra Racha Wang Derm is much smaller and simpler in its construction. Apart from the older Wichai Prasit Fort, the only original building from the Thonburi period is the Throne Hall, a Thai-style building consisting of two segments forming a T shape. Later additions include two Chinese-style residences, King Pinklao’s residence, King Taksin’s shrine, the Whale Head Shrine, and the (literal) Green House.

The "Chinese Residences" (right) built early in the 19th century, with the shrine to Taksin on the left and the Whale Head Shrine in between.

The “Chinese Residences” (right) built early in the 19th century, with the shrine to Taksin on the left and the Whale Head Shrine in between.

Thailand #2227c (2006)

Thailand #2227c (2006)

During the reigns of Kings Rama I and Rama II, a Chinese style of architecture was much in favor. Sometime before 1851, two Chinese styled residence halls were built between the throne hall and the river wall. The smaller residence was built first and now houses an exhibit of King Taksin’s battle achievements as well as a collection of weapons dating from his time. The larger hall has some fine details on the gable ends and now displays maps, commercial goods and other exhibits recounting the nature of trade during King Taksin’s time.

Whale head shrine.

Whale head shrine.

Next to the Chinese residences is a curious little shrine housing the bones of a large whale’s head. Apparently, in the early days of Bangkok, it was not unusual for whales to occasionally be found in the Chao Phraya River around Bangkok. Although little is known about the original shrine, it was probably built to house bones that were found in the grounds of the palace during the construction of one of the buildings. The present shrine is a reconstruction built in 1999.

The shrine to King Taksin

The shrine to King Taksin

Thailand #2227b (2006)

Thailand #2227b (2006)

Next to the Whale Head Shrine is a larger building housing a shrine to King Taksin himself. The current building is a reconstruction of a shrine originally built some time before 1900. Exactly why the shrine was built in the first place isn’t known. The shrine houses a large statue of King Taksin in the high-peaked hat that was typical of the early Bangkok period. In the days of King Taksin and the early Chakri kings, it actually wasn’t allowed to draw, sculpt, or otherwise make a likeness of the king. All of the current paintings and sculptures of the early kings you see around Thailand today were made in the nineteenth century based on written descriptions of the Kings.

In the gardens around the Throne Hall, there are short hedgerows planted in linear patterns as well as patterns in the brick walkways. These mark the foundations of other buildings found in the palace during excavations when the grounds were being reconstructed. Since there was little or no written information describing these buildings, the foundation organizing the reconstruction decided to mark them out rather than trying to rebuild the buildings.

King Pinklao's Residence

King Pinklao’s Residence

Thailand #2227d (2006)

Thailand #2227d (2006)

The last large residence built in the palace was King Pinklao’s Residence. King Pinklao actually held the office of “Second King” during the reign of King Rama III, but is still referred to as a King in his own right. His residence in the Thonburi Palace was built while he was still a prince. When he became Second King, he moved to the “Front Palace,” which is now the National Museum. The building was constructed during the early days of the American presence in Bangkok, and at the court, so the residence reflects some western practices of the time, such as a brick or stone first story with a wooden second floor.

King Pinklao’s residence now houses various memorabilia related to King Pinklao, including letters regarding the negotiations of the infamous Bowring Treaty. In the ground floor is a display of both Thai and Chinese porcelain as well as some fine examples of gold nielloware. There is also a small book stand on the second floor where books (in English) are sold describing the life and times of King Taksin in more detail.

The last building of special interest in the palace grounds is a small green wooden “gingerbread” house built sometime between 1900 and 1906. It was built during the reign of King Rama V when Prince Khrom Phra Chakrapadibhongse resided in the palace. The building was used for a time as an infirmary. Prince Chakrapadibhongse was the last royal resident of the Palace. By the turn of the twentieth century, the palace had ceased to have much strategic importance, so it was turned over to the Royal Thai Navy.

In 1995, recognizing the historical importance of the palace, the Navy formed a foundation to restore the palace buildings and open them to the public. The palace can be visited only by groups of five or more people, by prior arrangement with the foundation.


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