King of Siam

Chulalongkorn, or Rama V, is one of Thailand's most beloved kings. He reigned from 1868 to 1910. Though he died in 1910, he lives on in the Thai imagination. Today photos of him are found throughout the kingdom: he is pictured in formal state dress with one of his wives (he had about 150, including concubines); with a dozen or more sons ranged beside him in order of height, each decked out in top-hat and tails (he had maybe 85 children); squatting on the porch of his palace dressed in a sarong cooking curry over a simple charcoal burner. Though ubiquitous now, such images were rare in his day, allowing him to indulge his penchant for taking incognito trips around the country to meet and talk with his subjects.

In 1868 both he and his father Mongkut contracted malaria; Mongkut died, and though most expected the son would too, he survived. He was named king, but because of his youth, power was held for some time by a regent. Chulalongkorn did not gain de facto power until his coming of age and coronation in 1873.


According to Thai custom, the head is a high or holy part of the body, and as the head of a king is the most holy of all heads, no one can reach it to crown him. Therefore, kings must crown themselves. This is what Chulalongkorn did in 1873, and he then proclaimed an end to prostration. Prostration was the custom of kneeling on the floor with the head down in the presence of royalty. European visitors to Siam thought prostration barbarous and abhorrent and they wrote scathingly about it. One of his brothers, Damrong Rajanubhab, was present at the ceremony, and later wrote: "At that instant all in the great assembly stood up, and I assure you that it was a most impressive spectacle." It was a symbolic and dramatic demonstration that Siam was to undergo radical change during this reign, change which eschewed many of the traditional symbols and practices of power and refigured the nation in a more modern idiom.

An earlier and equally symbolic innovation was a visit Chulalongkorn made in 1871-2 to Malaya, Indonesia, Burma, and India. Never before had a Siamese monarch traveled so far from mainland Southeast Asia. Removal of the person of the king from the centre of the polity was a radical departure from traditional statecraft, but no ill befell Siam during the young king's absence, and the trip gave him a chance to view first hand many examples of modern administration. According to secretaries' reports, while abroad he visited factories, armed forces, and public works, and was impressed with much of what he saw. Such sights may have provided inspiration for some of the administrative changes which Chulalongkorn was to institute.

Many early reforms in Chulalongkorn's reign fundamentally challenged the old order and threatened the power bases of the traditional élite. Men like the regent Chaophrya Suriwong had been considered reformers in Mongkut's day, but in Chulalongkorn's eyes had become hua boran, Thai for "ancient heads". They had traditionally enjoyed substantial control of goods, taxes, and manpower, but decrees requiring the public auctioning of opium and gambling monopolies, centralized budgeting, and the gradual abolition of slavery began to erode this control. Though the young king's innovations may have been inspired by western administrative methods, they were publicly justified in Buddhist moral terms with which even the hua boran could not argue.

Instead of sending his formidable coterie of well-educated brothers to outlying provinces to rule, as had been the custom in the past, Chulalongkorn kept them with him in the capital. Early in his reign he drew on them to form a privy council which oversaw much of the administration of the kingdom, further striking a blow to the power of the hua boran; by the 1890s he placed the most capable of them in charge of newly formed ministries and departments. The king, his brothers and supporters, numerous government-employed foreign experts, and a growing number of educated young Siamese and Chinese nobles embarked on a path of centralization which transformed Siam by, for example, training a modern armed forces, mapping the borders of the kingdom, developing a standardized educational curriculum, and beginning an aggressive campaign of building public works like roads, railways, and waterworks. By Chulalongkorn's death in 1910, the foundations had been laid for the tightly centralized nation state which is Thailand today.


Not all was innovative, however, and Hollywood fictions notwithstanding, Chulalongkorn was no democrat. In an 1890 decree, he deplored the paucity of educated men of noble background: "His Majesty needs many more government officials...and if a man has sufficient knowledge and ability, His Majesty will maintain him in government service without regard for his background; but if he is of good family, so much the better". Many monarchial institutions continued virtually unchanged. Like his father before him, Chulalongkorn had numerous wives and concubines and many children; unlike his predecessor, he sent his offspring abroad to various foreign countries to be educated. He initially retained the position of uparat, naming George Washington, the son of his father's uparat, as his own second king. When this man died, however, the king elevated one of his own sons to crown prince, a rank more consonant with European tradition and one which has continued to the present. Chulalongkorn also provided promising young nobles and commoners with king's scholarships to enable them to study abroad; on their return, they were virtually guaranteed important positions in the growing bureaucracy which was transforming the country.

World Leader

Chulalongkorn, like Mongkut, was determined to move as an equal among European powers, and was visibly able to do so during two visits to Europe in 1897 and 1907. Stopping in several countries to visit sons in schools and academies throughout Europe, he was received by important European leaders: photographs in the Thai commemorative volume King Chulalongkorn of Thailand Travels Abroad show him, regal in formal European dress, with the czar Nicholas and the general Bismarck. A grandson, chula Chakrabongse, noted that his visits were "a real success", in part "because he could converse easily and intimately with European royalty, being the first Asian monarch to talk to them directly in English instead of through interpreters".

Chulalongkorn abolished slavery, established a national education system, built roads and railways, and, following his father, maintained Siamese independence by holding off Britain and France. The year before his death, Mongkut had negotiated a treaty with the British which saw part of the southern holdings go to the colony Malaya, now Malaysia. Chulalongkorn had to hand over much of what is now Cambodia to the French. The British gained Burma to the north, though this did not involve a loss of Siamese territory. (Burma and Siam have a long history of warring and sacking.) The French gained control of Laos, to complete French Indochina, incorporating what is now Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Siamese borders have not changed substantially since that time. It is a testament to Mongkut and Chulalongkorn's statesmanship and astute political skills that they were able to maintain Siamese independence and prevent colonization.

One of the most prestigious universities in Thailand is named after this great king.

Much of the information about Chulalongkorn's life and works has been gathered from articles and books by David Wyatt, including Studies in Thai History: Collected Articles, Thailand: A Short History, and "Education and the Modernization of Thai Society" (in Change and Persistence in Thai Society, edited by G. W. Skinner and A. T. Kirsch). Also very important for a critical understanding of Siamese historiography is Thongchai Winichakul's most engaging study, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation.

Damrong Rajanubhab's article, which I quote from at the beginning of the write up, is "The Introduction of Western Culture in Siam" (in Selected Articles from the Siam Society Journal Vol. 7: Relationship with Portugal, Holland and the Vatican). The grandson I mention is Chula Chakrabongse, and I quote from his Lords of Life: The Paternal Monarchy of Bangkok, 1782-1932.

See my nodes on Mongkut and Anna Leonowens for more.

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