Temple of the Emerald Buddha – Sacred or Sacrificed

Wat Phra Kaew 1932

Wat Phra Kaew 1932

In Bangkok’s spiritual heart, next to the lifeline of the Chao Phraya River, is Wat Phra Kaew – known by foreigners as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Located in the northeast corner of the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew is one of Bangkok’s must-see temples and draws hundreds of visitors each day. The temple houses the Emerald Buddha statue, which was brought to Bangkok by Rama I when he was a general in the army of King Taksin. In 1785, when the Grand Palace was officially opened, Rama I enshrined the Emerald Buddha inside Wat Phra Kaew, where it has remained since.

To get to the temple, take the express boat to Tha Chang, then take a short walk along Thanon Na Phra Lan through the maze of street vendors and souvenir sellers until you come to the Gate of Glorious Victory. Once you step through the gates you will get a glimpse of the magnificent spires of the Phra Si Ratana Chedi and Phra Mondop, which are located on the upper terrace. This tantalizing view is just the tip of the iceberg, and more wonders wait to be revealed inside. The ticket office is at the end of the driveway on the left. As of the time of this blog post, tickets cost 400 baht for foreigners.

Wat Phra Kaew - View of the shimmering spires from the 1930s

Wat Phra Kaew - View of the shimmering spires, circa 1930

Inside the temple grounds, your eyes will be dazzled by the iridescent blues, reds, golds and silvers of the mirrors adorning the temple walls, which refract light in a thousand directions. Surrounding the whole compound are high arcaded walls, decorated with murals showing scenes from the Thai national epic, Ramakien. Fearsome statues, known as Yaksha, guard the Emerald Buddha and ward off evil spirits. The whole scene is like something from a gaudy fairytale, and the English novelist, W. Somerset Maugham wrote of it:

“It makes you laugh with delight to think that anything so fantastic could exist on this sombre earth.”

Since it was first built under Rama I, successive kings have added to and renovated Wat Phra Kaew. A wide range of architectural styles are present throughout the temple grounds including Thai, European and Chinese. This gives the temple its hodge-podge nature. During the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV), a scale model of Angkor Wat was introduced. At the time, Cambodia was a vassal state of Thailand and Rama IV reputedly wanted to move the entire Angkor Wat to Bangkok. However, he was dissuaded from this excessive undertaking and decided instead to commission a scale model. To the east of the upper terrace is Phrasat Phra Thep Bidon, known as the Royal Pantheon. This ornate building is designed in Khmer style and features life-size statues of all the previous kings. It is only open on ceremonial days such as Chakri Day (April 6), when the current Chakri dynasty is celebrated, and Coronation Day (May 5).

Yaksha in Wat Phra Kaew

Yaksha in Wat Phra Kaew, 1930s

The Emerald Buddha is enshrined inside the bot, the largest building at Wat Phra Kaew and one of the few original structures remaining. The bot is garishly decorated in traditional Thai style, with gilt and coloured glass walls surrounded by 112 garudas (birdmen) holding nagas (serpents), telling the tale of Indra, the god who saved the world by defeating the serpent-cloud that had swallowed all the rain water. Inside the bot, the Emerald Buddha sits on a nine-metre-high pedestal. This legendary statue is revered as protector of the country and only the king is allowed to touch it. The king traditionally changes the Buddha’s costume three times in the year to correspond with the start of the hot season, rainy season and cool season. Despite being called the Emerald Buddha, the statue is carved from a piece of solid jade, in the meditating posture of the Lanna school of northern Thailand. The statue was first discovered in 1434 when “lightning” shattered a chedi in Chiang Rai. In the ensuing chaos, a stucco Buddha image fell and some of the stucco was chipped, revealing the Emerald Buddha beneath. The figure then moved to Lampang and Vientiane before finally being carried to Thonburi by Chao Phraya Chakri (Rama I) in 1779.

The Emerald Buddha wearing his three seasonal costumes

The Emerald Buddha wearing his three seasonal costumes

If you’re looking for the tranquillity and authenticity of a traditional Buddhist temple, you won’t find it at Wat Phra Kaew. The steady stream of tourists ensures that the place is constantly bustling with a multitude of languages and nationalities. This makes it hard to really appreciate the beauty of Wat Phra Kaew and you will spend most of your time trying to avoid getting in other people’s photographs, or getting them in yours. As you enter the central bot, you will most likely get pulled along by the strong current of people – all fighting for space to leave their shoes – and find that you don’t really get any time to observe the exotic images that surround the walls. Before you know what’s happened, you will be back outside wondering what all the hassle was about. Wat Phra Kaew is best visited in the morning while you still have plenty of energy, it could be a real drain in the late afternoon.

The temple is definitely worth a visit but for a quiet place to relax, you’d be better heading to temples such as Wat Sanghathan, which, although off the tourist radar, is a great place to take in the ambiance of temple life. Wat Phra Kaew, unfortunately, has become little more than a money making machine, where the original sanctity has been replaced by the creeping tentacles of capitalism and the rush towards “modernism.” The Thais are a Buddhist people, and Buddhists believe in the universal concept of cause and effect. One has to wonder what the effect of all those unaccountable masses will be. If the countless kisses of pilgrims can wear away the foot of the statue of St. Peter in the Basilica, what will the noisy calamity of tourists in Wat Phra Kaew bring about as they continue to flock in the selfish pursuit of been-there-and-done-that.


The Not-So-Democratic Democracy Monument

Democracy Monument

Democracy Monument

At the end of a turbulent decade, the ruling Thai government of the time decided to pay homage to the 1932 coup d’état – which brought about the end of absolute monarchy – by constructing a large symbolic monument on Ratchadamnoen Klang Road. The foundation stone of Democracy Monument was laid down in 1939, the same year that the country’s name was changed from Siam to Thailand. At the time, the country was under the rule of military dictator, Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram, whose fascist leanings were outlined when he signed a pact with the Japanese and declared war on the United States of America and Great Britain. Phibun, who was educated in France, compared Democracy Monument to the Arc de Triomphe, and said that it represented a new Westernized and cultured Bangkok. During a cabinet meeting of August 30, 1939, he said:

“We must be as cultured as other nations otherwise no country will come to contact us. Or if they come, they come as superiors. Thailand would be helpless and soon become colonized. But if we were highly cultured, we would be able to uphold our integrity, independence, and keep everything to ourselves.”

In order to make way for Democracy Monument, local residents were evicted from their homes and businesses at short notice. It should be no surprise, then, that the building of the monument was highly unpopular and not only did many people lose their homes and livelihoods, hundreds of shade trees were cut down to make space for a ceremonial boulevard. Considering Bangkok’s torrid heat, and lack of air-conditioning at the time, shade trees were an important part of everyday life.

Democracy Monument under construction

Democracy Monument under construction

Democracy Monument was designed by Mew Aphaiwong, an architect who had ties to Phibun. The Italian sculptor, Corrado Feroci, executed the relief sculptures around the base of the monument. The relief sculptures, however, are not an accurate representation of the events that occurred on June 24, 1932, and are rife with propaganda. The armed forces are depicted as saviours of the nation, bringing about democracy as a united force for the benefit of the people. Civilians appear only as grateful recipients of the fortitude of the armed forces, when in actual fact the coup was carried out by both civilians and the military. In the panel titled “Soldiers Fighting for Democracy”, the military are shown engaged in a battle for “democracy”, though the coup was bloodless and no fighting took place.

Soldiers Fighting for Democracy - Democracy Monument

Soldiers Fighting for Democracy

The monument itself is highly symbolic. Four large wing-like structures surround the central turret, upon which sits a carved representation of the constitution. These wings represent the four branches of the Thai armed forces which carried out the 1932 coup. Each one of these wings is 24 metres high, marking the fact that the coup took place on June 24. The central turret stands three metres high, representing the month of June, the third month of the traditional Thai calendar. The turret has six gates which represent the six policies of the Phibun regime: independence, internal peace, equality, freedom, economy and education.

Today, Democracy Monument stands isolated on a traffic island, almost impossible to reach due to the heavy Bangkok traffic. Thai people are starkly unaware of what really happened on that fateful day in 1932. As has often been the case in Thailand’s history, events pertaining to politics and the monarchy have been erased from memory or glorified. If you manage to dodge the relentless traffic, take some time to appreciate the relief sculptures and design of Democracy Monument, if for no other reason than to confirm the propagandistic nature of its design and reflect on the undemocratic way in which in which it was realised. If you can’t get that close, you could always take a seat opposite, like the woman in this picture. I wonder what she was thinking.

Democracy  Monument in every day life

Democracy Monument in every day life

See more pictures of Democracy Monument on my image blog Siamese Visions.


Discover Thailand’s Diversity in Museum of Siam

Siam Museum

Thais aren’t particularly well-known for their objectivity when it comes to talking about their proud nation. Most seem to believe that “Thainess” is an inbuilt trait that can’t be understood by outsiders. But it is interesting to note that Thai people are made up of an estimated 57 ethnic groups and their history is replete with immigration and changing powers. It comes as a refreshing change, then, that the people behind the Museum of Siam have posed the question: What is Thainess?

Through a series of interactive and compelling exhibits, you are guided from Suvarnabhumi (The Land of Gold) to modern-day Thailand. The museum designers used the ever-changing face of Thailand as an inspiration for the layout of the exhibits and compared its progression to the flow of a river or rainbow (roong in Thai). The “roong” begins in the immersive theatre with a short movie that feeds your imagination and leaves you with many unanswered questions to whet your appetite.

Typically Thai

After the immersive theatre, you are guided to the next room which features a street stall complete with pestle and mortar and artificial chicken wings, where you can get an amusing photo of you and your friends making som tum. There is also half a tuk tuk built into the wall, which is about the closest you’ll ever get to sitting in the driving seat of one of these freaks of automobilia. The tour then heads up to the third floor in honour of its flowing and ever-changing theme.

Once you arrive breathless on the third floor, you will find the section entitled Suvarnabhumi. This part of the exhibition attempts to unravel some of Thailand’s ancient history and give you a clearer picture of how the land mass we now know as Thailand first came to be inhabited. One of the more extraordinary claims in this section of the museum is that Bangkok and the central plains (Thailand’s “rice bowl) were under the sea as recently as 5,000 years ago. However, I have not found any other sources that clearly state this as of yet and so I encourage the reader to look further into this, or perhaps shed some light on it.

The tour then guides you through Thailand’s rich and colourful history, from the Ayutthaya period to the beginning of the current Rattanakosin era and on to modern influences and possible future outcomes. Many of the exhibits are interactive and allow you the opportunity to use your hands or input ideas. As you follow the roong, you will learn about Thai Buddhism, warfare, trading, crafts, culture and modern Thailand. At the end of the tour you are encouraged to write messages in the “Thailand Tomorrow” room, which will be saved in a database and used for research in the future.

In the War Room

But I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you and tell you what it’s all about; I just hope to spark your interest so that you may go and pay the museum a visit! The Museum of Siam is open from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday and costs 100 baht for Thais and 300 baht for foreigners (read my post on double-pricing) though if you work in Thailand they will allow you in for the same price as Thais. A Black Canyon coffee shop is located within the museum grounds and the facilities are clean and well-maintained. To get to there, take a ferry to Memorial Bridge (N6) then walk through the flower market for about 10 minutes. The museum is on Sanamchai Road, not far from Wat Pho and other popular attractions.

Map showing Siam Museum


Off the Tourist Trail in Bangkok: King Prajadhipok Museum

For the foreign residents of Bangkok, sightseeing around Rattanakosin Island doesn’t seem like so much fun once you’ve been here for a few years. The place is jam packed with tourists, cheap souvenirs (that Thai people never buy), and insane tuk tuk drivers who charge us triple rate, just because we’ve got round eyes and a big nose. It seems that there is nowhere where you can escape the clamour of tourist mania. However, there are a few places that offer a quiet retreat from the noise and heat of Bangkok’s “spiritual heart” and one of my favourite is the King Prajadhipok Museum.

Map of Rattanakosin Island - the tourist centre and "spiritual heart" of Bangkok

The Museum

Located at the Phanfa Bridge intersection, the museum is housed in a three-storey registered heritage building, not far from Democracy Monument. It was built in the early 20th century by a French-Swiss architect, Charles Beguelin, and has served numerous purposes over the years. It became the Prajadhipok Museum in 2001. The museum was formerly housed in the basement of the Secretariat Building but moved to the Public Works Department after the King Prajadhipok’s Institute took over the role of management. In 1980, the king’s wife – Queen Rhambai Barni – donated a large number of authentic personal items such as reading glasses, photographs and memoirs.

King Prajadhipok Museum

King Prajadhipok

The various exhibitions inside the museum guide you through the life and reign of King Prajadhipok, from his coronation in 1926, through to his eventual abdication in England, where he lived until his death in 1941. His reign marked a turning point in Siamese history and he became the last absolute monarch and first constitutional monarch of the Chakri dynasty, when the Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party) staged a coup d’état in 1932, demanding a “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” The coup was bloodless and the king willingly signed the draft constitution on June 27, 1932, essentially giving away all his powers. But later, in 1933, he expressed his discontent with the way the new government was running the country. In 1934, he left the country on the premise of an eye operation, never to return. He formally abdicated on March 2, 1935.

King Prajadhipok

The Exhibitions

The first floor of the museum is where the temporary exhibition hall is found and contains articles related to the life of King Prajadhipok and Queen Rambhai Barni. On the second floor you will find exhibits such as the desk that King Prajadhipok used to sit at, a book cabinet – containing the books he read (I saw H.G Wells’ War of the Worlds) – and a collection of cigarette lighters. There is also a mini theatre which shows films about the king and films that he made such as “Magic Ring” which was shot on Pha-Ngan Island in 1929; ask museum staff for showing times. The third floor goes into detail about the signing of the Constitution, the 150th anniversary celebrations of Bangkok, which were organized by King Prajadhipok, and the story behind the coup.

It costs 40 baht to enter the museum, though I’ve been there three times and no one has ever asked me for my money. Bags must be left in the lockers in the entrance; keys are provided and a security guard sits by the door. The museum is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday and there are guided tours every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.

This little-known museum is a great alternative to the many crowded temples and palaces, and offers an interesting insight into the history of Thailand. Indeed, not far from the museum is Democracy Monument, which was constructed in 1939 to celebrate the coup d’état of June 24, 1932. After visiting this museum, you will have a clearer understanding of the significance of Democracy Monument, and how a country that had once bowed to the absolute power of monarchy, made its first tentative steps towards a constitution. Worth a visit and worth the 40 baht entrance fee; if they ask you for it.


The Nine Kings of the Chakri Dynasty: Rama II – The Poet King

Buddha Loetla Nabhalai - Rama II

The second king of the Chakri dynasty was born in 1767, the same year that Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese. His father was Thong Duang, the man who would later become Rama I. At that time, Thong Duang had been appointed Luang Yokrabat[1] in the provincial town of Ratchaburi, where he met and married Nak (later Queen Amarinda). She gave birth to Chim on February 24, 1767, in Amphawa, Samut Songkhram. Chim was just 16 years old when his father became king and was raised to the title of Prince Itsarasunthon. In 1807 he was appointed uparat (deputy-king) and served as such until his father’s death in 1809, when senior court officials chose him as successor to the throne. However, Prince Thammathibet – the son of Taksin and Rama I’s daughter – plotted to take power for himself with the help of numerous supporters. His plot was discovered before it was implemented and all conspirators were executed, including the prince’s male offspring. After his execution, Prince Thammathibet’s wealth, palace, servants and rice were passed on to the son of the new king-elect. The day after the executions, the anointing ceremony took place and Prince Itsarasunthon officially became king. No royal naming system was established at the time of his accession to the throne. He was later named Buddha Loetla Nabhalai and is commonly called Rama II.

Reformation

During his reign, Rama II introduced numerous reforms. One of the first things he did was to order a complete census of manpower. At the time, Thai society was broken up into four main classes: chao (royalty), khunnang (nobility), phrai (commoners) and that (slaves). Ordinary phrai were expected to perform four months corvée[2], but many of them were able to avoid their duty by circumventing the registration process. In an attempt to remedy this, Rama II issued a decree that aimed to settle all disputes regarding registered status. Runaway phrai were given the opportunity to return to their patrons and were promised that they would not be punished if they did so of their own free will. If they chose to remain in hiding, they would be forcefully arrested and imprisoned. Furthermore, tattooing the wrists of phrai who had not yet been tattooed or had changed status was to be carried out to clearly show who their master (nai) was. The practice of tattooing the wrists of commoners was introduced by King Taksin.

In 1811, Rama II appointed eight committees to the task of surveying all arable land in the central plains area. He ordered that all land must be cultivated and anyone found to own large stretches of uncultivated land would be required to hand it over to the state. All landowners were obliged to pay a land tax, which was usually paid in rice – a tax known as khawka. As well as practical reforms, the king ordered that customary ceremonies were to be carried out before measuring land, such as making offerings to the spirits of the field. People were prohibited from working upon the fields on ceremonial days and anyone caught doing so would have his land confiscated and given to others.

Rama II was a devout Buddhist and he did much to educate the Siamese people on the teachings of the Buddha. He translated the Buddhist texts from Pāli into Thai so that people would understand the prayers and in 1817 he revived the Visakabucha festival, which commemorates the day that the Buddha attained enlightenment and passed into nirvana. When a virulent strain of cholera broke out in 1820, the king relieved all people of their duties so that they could take part in chanting sacred mantras and making merit. All animals were released and allowed to roam freely while prisoners were freed. No living being was to be killed during the ceremony. Not long after, the epidemic abated. The king’s course of action shows his strong belief in the Buddhist concept of karma and it seems he attempted to fight the disease through merit making.

Golden Age of Rattanakosin Literature

Sang Thong

It was well known that Rama II was a lover of the arts and in particular the literary arts. He was an accomplished poet and anyone with the ability to write a refined piece of poetry would gain the favour of the king; this led to him being dubbed the “poet king”. It was because of this special circumstance that the poet Sunthon Phu was able to elevate himself from phrai status to khun and later phra[3]. Sunthon – also known as the drunken writer – authored numerous works, many of which are still read and studied today. Rama II rewrote much of the great literature from the reign of Rama I in a modern style. He is attributed with writing a popular version of the Thai folk tale Ramakien and wrote a number of other dance dramas such as Sang Thong. The king was a musician of renown, playing and composing for the fiddle and introducing new techniques for playing certain instruments. He was also a sculptor and is accredited with sculpting the face of the Niramitr Buddha in Wat Arun. Because of his remarkable artistic achievements, Rama II’s birthday is now officially celebrated as National Artists’ Day (Wan Sinlapin Haeng Chat) and is held in honour of those artists who have contributed to the artistic and cultural heritage of the kingdom.

The White Elephant King

Catching a white elephant


The discovery of white elephants in Thailand has always been taken as an auspicious omen and they hold a revered place in Thai society due to their symbolic relationship to monarchy, religion and national identity. Rama II had several white elephants and because of this he was nicknamed “The White Elephant King”. Towards the end of his reign, the death of two white elephants was a cause for great concern and was seen as a sign of impending misfortune. Not long after, on July 21, 1824, Buddha Loetla Nabhalai became ill and died. His reign lasted almost 15 years.

During Rama II’s reign, Siam was mostly a peaceful country and much of his time was dedicated to promoting the arts and religion. He took a somewhat backseat role in the ruling of Siam and preferred to withdraw from administrative duties, leaving much of the work to the nobles. He was the father of 73 children to 40 mothers, outdoing his father in number of offspring but falling short in number of years; he was 16 years younger that Rama I when he died.


[1] “Luang Yokrabat” is a title given to nobility that serve as legal officers, appointed by the king and attached to a provincial centre.

[2] Unpaid labour required of people of low social class.

[3] Khun and Phra are both forms of conferred nobility, with Phra being higher than Khun.

The Nine Kings of the Chakri Dynasty: Rama I – The Founding Father


New iPhone guided tour comes to Thailand

The cover page of the guided tour

For the last few months I have been lucky enough to be part of something big in the world of iPhone apps. In early January of this year, I discovered a call for writers who “know Thailand” on craigslist and, deciding that I had nothing to lose, I sent out an email expressing my wish to take the job. I didn’t expect to get a reply and so when I got an email saying that I seemed like the ideal candidate, I was a pleasantly surprised.

Even more surprising was the assignment I was given: I had to write a “historical” tour guide. Did I have to travel through time? Not quite.

Rama – an app designed by New York-based Crimson Bamboo – is available on the iPhone and puts a unique spin on the role of tour guides. The app harnesses the power of GPS, archival photographs and storytelling to create compelling tours that not only direct you to intriguing locations, but also inform and entertain you. Rama offers guided tours in a number of cities throughout the world and is looking to add new tours in the near future. This tour is the first for Thailand.

 “Bangkok in the 1930s” takes you through a decade of economic crisis, coup d’états, political intrigue and the birth of a new nation. The narrative is set against the backdrop of Bangkok’s most famous temples and palaces and the tour guides you to places such as the Annanta Sammakhom Throne Hall – where the People’s Party staged a coup d’état in 1932 and ousted King Prajadhipok (Rama VII).

If you’re planning a trip to Bangkok, this guided tour offers you the perfect opportunity to discover places that you may otherwise overlook, while learning about the country’s history in a compelling and interactive way.

“Bangkok in the 1930s” is available as an in-app purchase at $1.99 on Rama, an iPhone app found on iTunes: http://bit.ly/iTunesRama or through the developer’s website at http://www.crimsonbamboo.com.


The Nine Kings of the Chakri Dynasty: Rama I – The Founding Father

Between Two Kingdoms

Burmese invasion of Ayutthaya

Burmese invasion of Ayutthaya

After the city of Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese in 1767, Siam went through an itinerant period in which the population was displaced and wealth and resources were lost. The Burmese, confident that they had subdued the Siamese forces, withdrew their main armies back to Burma, and left only a few thousand soldiers under the command of a Mon general. This was a fatal error and their occupation of Siam was to be short-lived. Six months after the Burmese had sacked Ayutthaya, a senior officer from the Ayutthayan army, led 5,000 men and more than a hundred boats to the stronghold at Thonburi. He captured and executed the general in charge then proceeded to make Thonburi his headquarters. Before long, he stood out as a strong leader and sometime in 1768 he was chosen as king by popular consent; his name was Taksin. He ruled Siam in an unorthodox fashion and gained the reputation of being impulsive and short-tempered.

King Taksin of Thonburi

King Taksin of Thonburi

During the reign of King Taksin, two brothers rose to prominence as generals in his army. These two brothers were Bunma and Thong Duang. Bunma had been a close ally of Taksin’s during his military campaigns and it was he who convinced his brother to join Taksin’s army. They both became respected generals and in 1778, Thong Duang led an army to the northeast and invaded Laos. He returned to Thonburi triumphant and brought with him the Emerald Buddha statue. This acquisition undoubtedly increased Thong Duang’s prestige and would have been taken as an auspicious sign for the kingdom. He was later promoted to the rank of Chaophraya Chakri, which would be the equivalent of a modern day Field Marshal.

Taksin became more eccentric towards the end of his reign and when he came into conflict with numerous Buddhist monks, his popularity diminished. This, among other things, planted the seeds of his demise. He was later forced to abdicate and took refuge as a Buddhist monk in Wat Chaeng. A succession struggle ensued in which Thong Duang emerged as the strongest contender for the throne. Once he had asserted his power in the capital, he recalled Taksin from Wat Chaeng and put him on trial to face charges of misconduct. Found guilty, he was beheaded on April 7, 1782.

A New Beginning

Not long after taking command, the new king, who later became Rama I or Phra Buddha Yodfa, distanced himself from the reign of Taksin by reversing a number of his decisions and stressing the dignity of the highest office. Fifteen days after been accepted as Siam’s new ruler, Rama I moved the capital from Thonburi to the east bank of the Chao Phraya River. He established the first city pillar and named the new capital Krung Thep. Only foreigners continued to use the old village name, Bangkok.

Construction of the king’s palace proceeded at a feverish pace and it was decided to model the new city on the old capital – Ayutthaya. It seems the king wanted to regain some of the grandeur of Ayutthaya and perhaps rekindle the flames of a golden age in Siamese history. Whatever the reasons, it is known that Rama I ordered ship-loads of bricks to be brought from Ayutthaya and Thonburi to use as basic building materials for the palaces, fortifications and temples. Whether this decision was made due to economic constraints or for ritual value is impossible to say.

On June 6, 1782, Rama I formally ascended the throne in a traditional ceremony in which monks chanted over a container of water for three days before using it to transform the general into a king. The king was carried by palanquin from Thonburi to Bangkok at an auspicious hour. He was then anointed in his palace and presented with a suitable array of royal names. This marked the beginning of the Chakri dynasty, which the present day monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is descended from.

A Stable Siam

Two years after the king’s ascension to the throne, Bangkok was starting to look like a capital city. An audience hall, library and temple had been constructed within the palace compound and an official opening ceremony was held in which the king was anointed a second time. He developed a daily routine which included giving alms to Buddhist monks, discussing court finances and matters of general importance, and listening to sermons in the audience hall. During his daily meetings, the king would regularly request the Department of Registration to disseminate the royal edict. One of these edicts enforced a law prohibiting civil servants from gambling. In the opening preamble of the edict the state of affairs in Siam is revealed: “Nowadays there are but few amongst the populace who are truthful and who make a living in a law-abiding manner.” Gambling was big business at the time and many people made their fortunes from it. Indeed, Rama I later had to revise the law when it became apparent that State revenue was suffering.  He allowed gamblers to continue borrowing money but the license-holders were instructed to lend money based on the means of individuals to avoid excessive debt burden.

Hanuman - God-king of the apes fighting with Mayura, from Ramakien

Hanuman - God-king of the apes fighting with Mayura, from Ramakien

Another important reform under Rama I was the revision of the Siamese version of the Buddhist Tripitaka. When the king had been informed that many of the old texts contained mistakes, he organised a council of learned men to edit the extant versions and compile a definitive set. The revisions of the text were finished within five months and a festival was organized to commemorate the new Tripitaka. During the festivities, the roof of the library caught fire as a result of the firework display. Rama I took this as a sign that the old building had not been sufficient and ordered the construction of a sturdier edifice.

With a stable Siam now emerging, Rama I also dedicated some of his time to promoting the arts, particularly the literary arts. Many of the ‘great classics’ were re-written including one of Siam’s best-known tales, Ramakien, which is derived from the Indian Ramayana. The king supervised the rewriting of Ramakien and is believed to have written parts himself. The story of Ramakien is also told in murals on the walls of the Grand Palace.

It was this dedication to the kingdom that helped Rama I to build a strong Siam. His statecraft set the wheels in motion for future kings of Siam, but it wasn’t without opposition and the threat of Burmese invasion was as real as ever.

Conflicting Forces

In the same year that Bangkok was officially opened, King Bodawpaya of Burma, encouraged by numerous military successes, decided to launch an attack on Siam.  The Burmese opened five different fronts at strategic locations including Chiang Mai, Petchaburi, the far southern provinces, the Three Pagoda Pass and the town of Tak. The Siamese responded by deploying three forces and Bodawpaya met with the army led by Siam’s uparat (deputy-king), who was none other than Bunma, the king’s brother. At first, the Burmese appeared to have the upper hand, but after food shortages and an outbreak of smallpox, the Siamese sent Bodawpaya and his troops into retreat, harassing them all the way to Burmese territory.

During these battles, the uparat came into conflict with his brother over a request to execute a number of ministers who had failed to fulfill their duties. Because these ministers were close friends of the king, he denied the uparat’s request but gave him permission to punish them. The guilty ministers were stripped of their ranks and their heads were partly shaved before being marched around the camp.

Rama I and his brother were frequently at odds during his reign and feelings of rivalry existed between them. The king had consistently used his power to undermine his brother’s position and towards the end of his life the uparat planned a coup d’état to overthrow Rama I and place his son on the throne. However, he became ill and died before he could carry out his plan. A number of co-conspirators were discovered and executed.

The Legacy

Rama I

Rama I

Rama I was born Thong Duang March 20, 1737 to a high-ranking government officer and his Chinese wife. Though he wasn’t born of royal blood, he rose through the ranks and became king of Siam by virtue of his steadfast character, decisive actions and leadership skills. His rise to the throne also fitted the Buddhist belief of karma and his legitimacy depended not on his bloodline but on ties of incarnation. He claimed to be a Bodhisatta, who had attained good karma through merit making in previous lives, and would become a Buddha in his next life.

Rama I was a conservative king, quite the opposite of the eccentric Taksin, and he held the pride of the kingdom above all. Through his numerous reforms, Siam started a new chapter in its history which, though veiled in the guise of orthodoxy, was in fact a time of innovation and would eventually lead to westernization and the fall of the absolute monarchy. He died aged 72 on September 7, 1809. He was the father of some 42 children to 28 mothers; divorce lawyers would have loved this guy.

On his death bed Rama I prophesised that his dynasty would last but 150 years. To find out how that prophecy did (at least in part) come true, stay tuned to this blog as we follow the lives of the Nine Kings of the Chakri Dynasty.