The second king of the currently ruling Chakri dynasty of Thailand, he is known in Thai by the name he was given at his ascension, Phra Phutthaloetla; in English he is more commonly referred to as Rama II, which is much easier to pronounce. He held the throne from 1809 to 1824, and his reign is chiefly remembered for its literary works.

He was born in 1768 in Rajaburi, a provincial city in the country then known as Siam. His father Chakri was a military man, and the boy accompanied his father on his military campaigns. Chakri rose to become a general serving King Taksin, but Taksin, after some years as king, began to behave erratically, so in 1782 Chakri or his supporters had Taksin killed. Chakri himself took the throne; his son immediately became a prince and was given the name Isarasundorn. Chakri, often called Rama I in English, moved the capital across the Chao Phraya River from Thonburi to Bangkok; in 1806 the prince was made uparat or second king, and he was the only uparat of the Chakri dynasty to have eventually ascended the throne. That the staff of power passed so easily and uneventfully from father to son was unusual in Siam at that time, and a sign that the kingdom was beginning to recover from the turmoil that it was thrown into by the Burmese sacking of Ayuthaya in 1767.

Accustoned to praising their kings, one Thai website avers that "Throughout his reign, he did only meritorious deeds, thus peace and harmony were the order of the day during that era." Though we can take such lofty phrases with a grain of salt, he does seem to have been a gentle and scholarly king who enjoyed the intellectual pursuits rather than the warrior arts that his father excelled at.

Auspiciously, Rama II had three white elephants, much revered in Thailand; that so many were found during his reign was taken to be symbolic of his good karma. He was blessed to rule in a period of relative peace, for the Burmese, traditional enemies of the Siamese, were relatively quiescent; the Vietnamese squabbles with the Thai over control of the Khmer empire were relatively distant and minor; and European powers had not yet colonized Siam's neighbours nor threatend to do the same to Siam itself. Thus Rama II was able to concentrate on more insular pursuits.

Surrounded by many able princes and lesser noble children - his polygamous father had had 42 children, and he himself had 73 - he began the custom of appointing senior princes to supervise over departments of state, thus checking the influence of non-noble powerful families and ensuring that his closest rivals - his royal brothers and uncles - had something to keep themselves occupied with. He promoted Buddhism by having wat (temples) built (including additions to the beautiful Wat Arun) and Pali texts translated into Thai; he also sent a mission of monks to Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) to study Theravada Buddhism there. He supervised lovely scupltures which can be seen at the National Museum in Bangkok, and was responsible for shaping the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayana epic tale, into its present form. He composed music and played traditional Thai instruments. He died aged 56; the next two kings, Rama III and Rama IV (Mongkut) were his sons.

Thailand by David Wyatt