Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 3 – Pra Preecha: Despotic Madman or Innocent Victim?)

The story of Pra Preecha is a complicated one, and – like many other things in the orient – shrouded in a mysterious web of lies and treachery, that the westerner can scarcely comprehend. In a country where the truth often amounts to the same thing as a lie, it hardly seems surprising that there is no singular, concrete account of what happened to this middle-ranking Siamese official. Some say he was innocent of all charges, and cruelly framed by the rival Bunnag family, who were afraid that Pra Preecha’s own Amatayakun family would steal their thunder, and knock them off the top spot as Siam’s number one influential family of rank. Others say that Pra Preecha was a despotic madman, who murdered numerous prisoners working at the Kabin gold mine, while embezzling large sums of money to enrich himself and his family.

Pra Preecha

Pra Preecha

On March 11, 1879, Pra Preecha married Fanny Knox, the daughter of the British Consul Thomas George Knox and his Siamese wife, Prang Yen. Some believe that he married Fanny as a way to avoid punishment from the Siamese government. Pra Preecha, sensing the brewing storm, put all of his assets in his wife’s name. Not long after the wedding, he was arrested and put on trial for his alleged crimes.

fanny knox

Fanny knox

Meanwhile, Fanny was pregnant with her new husband’s child, which inspired her father to intervene and try to save Pra Preecha. He took his case to King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) asking him to help his friend, who he believed was being wrongly framed by the Bunnag family. King Chulalongkorn was a personal friend of Pra Preecha, and made it clear that he had no wish to see him punished if he was not guilty of the alleged crimes. During this time, more scandalous rumours of Pra Preecha’s malfeasances were surfaced and a number of his family members were also put under arrest.

thomas knox

Thomas George Knox

Knox’s intervention in the affair cost him his post as Consul and he was recalled to London, where he was later given the title Sir Thomas George Knox.

Pra Preecha’s trial got underway in mid-1879.  An article in The New York Times of April 12, 1880, said that “[the] trial is admitted by all intelligent persons to have been a complete farce, since he was not allowed to cross-question witnesses who accused him of murder, nor was he permitted to refer to his books when called upon to account for sums drawn by him as expenses for the gold mine.” Although Pra Preecha eventually admitted to stealing gold from the King’s mines, some believe he made the confession in the hope that he would be spared the cruel torture that so many criminals of the time suffered until they confessed. He was found guilty, and his execution date was set for November 24, 1879. Not long before the execution took place, Fanny departed to England along with her newly-born baby and two of Pra Preecha’s children from another marriage.

Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 1 – Ai Yone: The Jealous Husband.)

Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 2 – Kan: The Hapless Desperado.)


Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 2 – Kan: The Hapless Desperado.)

Siam public executionThis is the second in a three-part series of gritty true-life stories of public execution in Siam. Today’s story follows the last moments of Kan, the hapless desperado who robbed and murdered a nobleman to feed his starving family; and lost his head under the executioner’s sword. . . .

April 2, 1903 Samrong Province

Kan still didn’t know why he’d let himself get into this, but his family were hard up, and he needed the money. He held the knife in his hand, afraid of the killing power that lay dormant in its steel shaft. There was no turning back now; if he tried to walk away, his companions would kill him. His heart raced, and thoughts of fleeing ran through his mind. Just at that moment, Khun Prawit – the rich landowner of Samrong’s most productive rice fields – came into view. He was heading back to his dwellings after collecting payment for a recent rice crop. He was escorted by two sturdy guards. As they passed the patch of trees where Kan and his companions lay in ambush, two of the other bandits leapt out of their hiding place, easily slitting the throats of the guards. Kan jumped out, right on cue, holding the knife to Khun Prawit’s chest, and demanded the money. Khun Prawit was bold, and flatly refused, deftly sidestepping as though he might make a dash for escape. Instantly, another robber jumped on his back and held him down; he screamed to Kan: “Kill him!” Kan ran forward, searching Khun Prawit’s body for the money; he found it, threw it to one side, then – before he knew what had happened – thrust the cold steel blade deep into Khun Prawit’s chest; his accessory finished him off by slitting his throat; the blood streaming out onto the grassy path.

May 9, 1905 Bangkok

The jangle of the jailer’s keys cut through the darkness, arousing Kan’s dulled senses. The heavy key was thrust into the lock and turned with a decisive twist, opening the door to the cell where Kan had spent the last two years of his life. He didn’t stir, just remained staring at the floor. Two sturdy guards entered the cell and picked him up by the arms; he had no power to resist; he allowed them to push him to the exit like a ragdoll. They walked purposefully down a long, dimly-lit corridor; Kan being dragged by the guards; his bare feet trailing on the floor.

They came to a large wooden door; one guard stepped forward with a key and opened it. As the door opened, the brilliant rays of the rising sun flooded into the corridor where Kan was standing, he screwed up his eyes and tried to cover his face; it was the first time he had seen full sunlight in two years. It would be the last.

Kan was flung on the ground in heavy shackles and handcuffs while the guards discussed things among themselves. They could have left him unchained; he would not have been able to get away. All his strength had been withered away by two years of meager rations and cruel beatings. Suddenly, he was being dragged to his feet again, but the whole scene felt like a dream to him. The guards took Kan a short distance away to a small port where a boat sat waiting, and numerous state officials stood around, looking irritated and flustered at having to be awake at so early an hour for the execution of such an insignificant prisoner.

Kan must have drifted to sleep, because the next thing he knew, he was sat on the boat, floating downriver at quite a pace; guards and officials sat around; saying nothing. A deathly silence pervaded the boat. He began to feel more aware of his surroundings, and his eyes focused on the houses on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. He could see river people going about their lives: just another day for them; how lucky they were to be alive; in the thick of things. Presently, a guard sat next to him began smoking. Kan asked the guard for a smoke, but he just stared at him through slanted eyes, and blew smoke in his face.

Wat Samrong 7 a.m.

They arrived at Wat Samrong, and the guards and officials went onshore to make preparations for the execution. Kan was left on board the boat, where numerous Buddhist monks came to visit him and prepare him for the afterlife. One of them was preaching to him about cause and effect: “. . . you were deluded into believing material wealth was the key to happiness, but now look where your hunger for gold has got you,” said the handsome young monk “They’re going to execute you, and you’re none-the-better for your actions.” Kan did not reply, only stared across the boat at the area that was being cordoned off with flimsy blue cloth; his final resting place.

“. . . so you must find peace within yourself before you go. Understand that what you did was the ripening of bad karma, it could not be avoided.” The monk carried on in his languid tone for the best part of an hour; Kan didn’t mind, he wasn’t interested, but it wasn’t so bad to be alive, listening to the drivel of a newly-ordained monk. Someone passed him a cigarette and he smoked it with his handcuffs on: raising two hands to take a pull; chains rattling with every movement. By and by, the executioners finished their preparations and two of the guards came to collect Kan. The dreaded moment was drawing near.

Prisoner being tied to a bamboo post

Kan was placed on the ground on a square of freshly-cut plantain leaves. His shackles were removed and he was firmly strapped to a T-shaped bamboo stake. They filled his ears with clay and marked a line across his neck. The executioners took long drafts of an alcoholic beverage to calm their nerves. They knelt down in front of him, asking his pardon. When everything was ready; all of the onlookers, guards and executioners stepped away from the small square of plantain leaves, and watched from a distance.

2 - Siam public exection

Executioner getting ready for the final blow

One of the executioners began dancing a set of intricate steps, staring intently at Kan, who became absorbed by the enchanting display. Just behind Kan, another executioner was posturing in a similar fashion. He briefly made a wai to the state officials then, with the stealthy silence of a cat, he took two graceful steps towards the prisoner, leapt in the air, arms outstretched, all the features of his face contorted in the most horrific manner, like some Chinese dragon. The curved blade flashed through the air like a beam of light, severing Kan’s head in a single blow; a jet of crimson shot two feet in the air; the severed head rolled limply across the ground, coming to a stop several feet away from the body; sightless eyes looking out across the Chao Phraya River, where an old woman spat blood-red betel juice into the fast flowing water.

Siam death by beheading - 3

Moving in for the kill

Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 1 – Ai Yone: The Jealous Husband.)

Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 3 – Pra Preecha: Despotic Madman or Innocent Victim?)

 


Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 1 – Ai Yone: The Jealous Husband.)

Long before the lethal injection, long before the firing squad, and many thousands of miles away from the cold efficiency of the guillotine, the Siamese[1] had their very own way of executing their murderers, thieves, adulterers, and unfortunate individuals who got on the wrong side of the king, princes, and nobles. Before the year 1919, those sentenced to death were publicly beheaded by sword in an intricate ritual that involved two swordsmen, Buddhist monks, and state officials. This practice was discontinued after August 19, 1919, when Boonpeng Heep Lek was the last person to be executed by decapitation in Siam.

Executioners arrayed in red

A Siamese execution

Over the coming week, I will be posting three accounts of public executions in Siam. Today’s story tells the tale of Ai Yone, a jealous husband who lost his wife to another man, and consecrated their love affair with a blood bath. Some of the places and names used in this account have been fictionalized; the main story, however, is based on a true account of crime and punishment in Siam.

Ai Yone: The Jealous Husband

April, 1893 Phra Pathom

When Ai Yone’s wife ran away with another man, he became possessed by an irrational desire to murder the cheating couple. He had always been an honest and upright man, working hard to earn his living. But now, nothing else mattered to him except the death of his adulterous wife (Nok) and her Casanova lover. Driven by an irrepressible urge to exact revenge, he stalked the carousing pair with the cool headedness of a detective, and the burning hatred of Mephistopheles. On April 13, he located them at a house in Phra Pathom, about 50 kilometres west of Bangkok. He watched their movements and waited patiently; he was in no particular rush. Later that day, the perfect opportunity revealed itself. His wife and her new lover were alone in the house, and he watched through burning eyes as the hated man bestowed kisses upon his wife. He sprang upon them unexpectedly, but the lover – quick and agile – deftly leapt from an open window and ran for his life, leaving the unfortunate Nok to face the wroth of Ai Yone alone. He wounded her in several places with a knife, and she died not long after. Ai Yone was promptly arrested, tried, and condemned to death.

May 19, 1893 Phra Pathom

Ai Yone was released from prison amidst taunts and jeers from a crowd that had gathered to witness the prisoner’s removal. He seemed oblivious to their presence, and chewed betel nut noncommittally. He was escorted by a heavily armed guard; bound in iron shackles. They took him to the river where he and a procession of state officials, police, and military, boarded a boat.  They left the port at six a.m., and headed for Wat Matkasan, where Ai Yone was to be executed.

At 7:15 a.m., the procession arrived at Wat Matkasan, where preparations for the execution got underway. Ai Yone remained bound and shackled on board the boat, smoking and engaging in animated conversation with those around him. Meanwhile, the executioners – seven in number – began the lengthy ritual, first making offerings of boar’s head, fowls, rice and betels at the temporary altar, erected for the occasion. The swords to be used for the execution were placed on the altar and duly consecrated and anointed. Looking on from the boat, Ai Yone seemed disinterested and detached as he received the last ministrations of the Buddhist monks. He held his head high, and showed no signs of fear.

Promptly, he was brought onto land and placed on the grass. The executioners were arrayed in red, and had wrapped red sashes around their foreheads. They knelt in front of Ai Yone and asked his pardon for what they were about to do. Some of the executioners took Ai Yone a little distance away, where they removed his neck-chain and handcuffs, then tied his elbows to a bamboo post, securely planted in the ground. He sat cross-legged on freshly-cut plantain leaves, neck exposed to receive the fatal blow, murmuring prayers and holding lighted tapers between his pressed palms. Next, his ears were closed with wet clay, so that he would not hear the deadly approach of the executioner. A line was drawn across his neck, to guide the descending sword; a white cloth wrapped around his body. All was ready.

Siamese execution

Making preparations for the execution

To the left of Ai Yone, a first executioner began an intricate set of dance-like moves, not unlike the movements seen in ram muay, the graceful dance performed at the beginning of muay thai (kickboxing) bouts. Ai Yone was transfixed on the hypnotic dance of the executioner. Meanwhile, to the right of Ai Yone – just outside his field of vision – a second executioner was skipping along in similar manner to the first. When this second executioner perceived that Ai Yone was entranced by the movements of the first, he swiftly moved in for the death blow: lifting the sword high above his head, stretching onto his tiptoes, he swung the razor-sharp blade with all his force, almost severing the head in one blow. The first executioner then quickly moved in to finish the job.

Siamese public beheading

The head being severed

The severed head rolled across the floor; vacant eyes stared at the morning sky; a light covering of rain clouds began to form. The body was quickly buried in a nearby grave and the head displayed on a pole; a warning to would be criminals. The once-handsome face of Ai Yone looked out across the execution ground, now nothing more than flesh and blood. The whole episode came to a close at 9 a.m., just four hours after he first saw the light of day. The crowd of Chinese and Siamese onlookers quickly lost interest, and dispersed within minutes. The rain came out of nowhere, cleansing the bloodstained ground.


[1] Before June 24, 1939, Thailand was known as Siam. As this document is primarily concerned with happenings prior to 1919, I will refer to Thais as Siamese, and Thailand as Siam.

To see more images, visit Siamese Visions.

Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 2 – Kan: The Hapless Desperado.)

Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 3 – Pra Preecha: Despotic Madman or Innocent Victim?)


Siamese Coup d’État of 1932: From Absolute to Constitutional Monarchy

The year 1932 marked a turning point in the history of Thailand. Faced with a failing economy, a reduced military budget, and cuts to civil service payrolls, a group of foreign-educated civilians and military leaders secretly began plotting the overthrow of the ruling princes of the Supreme Council. These princes practiced nepotism and greedily hoarded their personal wealth. In an attempt to ease the economic tension, King Prajadhipok proposed the levying of income taxes and property taxes but the Supreme Council opposed these policies, fearing that their personal fortunes would suffer. They instead made cuts to civil service and military spending, causing the Minister of Defense Prince Boworadet to resign, and angering civilians. The king himself was of a passive nature and allowed the Supreme Council to overrule him. He admitted his lack of financial acumen and publicly apologized for his failings:

“I myself do not profess to know much about the matter… if I have made a mistake I really deserve to be excused by the officials and people of Siam.”

In April of that year, Bangkok celebrated its 150th anniversary. Rama I founded the capital in 1782, after the fall of Ayutthaya. Legend tells how Rama I prophesised that his dynasty would last but 150 years. To honour the founding of the Chakri dynasty, the king had commissioned the building of a bridge to span the Chao Phraya River and a large statue of Rama I, which was sculpted by the resident Italian artist, Corrado Feroci. King Prajadhipok had promised to reveal his planned constitution during these celebrations. When the sesquicentennial passed without mention of a constitution, the People’s Party began to foment revolution.

Rama I statue

Rama I statue

Sesquicentennial celebrations

Four senior army officers joined the Promoters after sensing the growing vibe of discontent among many of Siam’s young officers and civil servants. Chief among them was Phraya Songsuradet, who became the main tactician in plotting the coup and advised the Promoters to be more secretive to avoid official detection. The coup organizers held clandestine meetings in dimly-lit boardrooms to plan the overthrow of the ruling elites. Despite their precautions, word of the coup eventually leaked to the police. On the evening of June 23, 1932, the Director General of the Police made a phone call to Prince Paribatra – who was acting Prince Regent while the king was away at his seaside resort in Hua Hin – asking him for authorization to arrest the coordinators of the coup. The prince, recognizing many of the names on the list of conspirators, decided to delay the order until the next morning, a delay that would cost him bitterly.

In the early hours of June 24, 1932, civilian and military members of the People’s Party began to gather on the pavilion of Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall.  A gunboat sailed up the Chao Phraya River and was positioned facing the residence of Prince Paribatra. Naval units arrived on the scene under false orders to suppress a Chinese uprising. Many of those gathered there on that fateful morning were unaware of the intentions of the People’s Party and there was a general air of confusion. Military units secured all strategic locations and the princes of the Supreme Council were arrested and imprisoned in the Throne Hall. Prince Paribatra was reputedly in his pyjamas when armed soldiers came to take him away; he was given no time to change his clothes. It was well known that Paribatra had strongly opposed the constitution and wished to put himself or his son on the throne in place of King Prajadhipok. Only one of the princes managed to avoid arrest. Prince Purachatra had been away at the Turkish baths in downtown Bangkok when a faithful servant came to warn him of the uprising. He escaped from Bangkok by train and disembarked in Hua Hin, where he informed King Prajadhipok of the state of affairs back in the capital.

troops on the street after the coup

Troops on the street after the coup

Tanks outside Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

Tanks outside Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

When a large crowd had gathered on the pavilion of Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, a speech was given by Phraya Manopakon (Mano) which strongly criticised the king and the ruling elites. The speech was written by Pridi Phanomyong, a French-educated radical who played a key role in organizing the coup d’état. Mano, standing on a podium on the pavilion of the Throne hall, read out the Manifesto of the People’s Party. In it, the king was accused of embezzling funds, nepotism and governing without principle. In the speech, the People’s Party invited the king to retain his position, but under a constitution which would strip him of all his theoretical powers. The king was given an ultimatum: if he did not reply, it would be taken as treason and the country would adopt a republican form of government. All this was broadcast over radio and supporters of the movement blanketed the capital with flyers and pamphlets. Despite the rousing speech, many of the onlookers remained noncommittal and waited to see the reaction of the forces that were being ousted.

Mano addressing the crowd at Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

Mano addressing the crowd at Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

Peoples Party in Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

People's Party in Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

Meanwhile, King Prajadhipok was at his seaside palace, Klai Kangwon, teeing off a game of golf when Prince Purachatra came charging onto the scene talking of revolution in the capital. The king took the news with aplomb and asked his wife, Queen Rambai Barni, to finish the game of golf while he went indoors to discuss the matter with Purachatra. Also staying with the king was Prince Svasti, Queen Rambai Barni’s charismatic father, who was well known for his wit and charm. The group nervously listened to the strongly-worded radio broadcast of the People’s Party and considered what course of action to take. At first, the possibility of fleeing the country was broached but when the king turned to his wife for a final answer, she decided the most honourable thing to do would be to return and face the music. Later in the day, they received a telegram from the People’s Party which contradicted the terms set forth in their Manifesto. In the telegram, they assured King Prajadhipok that if he did not want to remain on the throne, they would be happy to replace him with another prince. Soon after, a gunboat was dispatched to Hua Hin and the commander of the vessel went ashore to ask the King to return with him to Bangkok. He refused to board the gunboat and went instead by royal train.

King Prajadhipok and Queen Rambai Barni

King Prajadhipok and Queen Rambai Barni

King Prajadhipok and his entourage arrived in Bangkok late the next night and were met by a police guard who served as escort to the group. No military display was permitted at the Bangkok station and the People’s Party kept a respectful distance. Early the next morning, the king expressed his wish to meet with the leaders of the coup. Four members of the People’s Party were escorted to a room in King Prajadhipok’s palace where he was sitting behind a broad desk. He smiled and rose to greet them. “I rise,” he said, “in honour of the People’s Party.” In a country where civilians had once been obliged to prostrate themselves in the presence of the king, this significant moment was seen as a clear sign of King Prajadhipok’s willingness to agree to the terms of the People’s Party Manifesto. On June 27, 1932, King Prajadhipok signed the draft constitution, which stripped him of all his ancient powers. All the princes held captive were then released, all except Prince Paribatra, who was exiled to Germany for fear that he might stage a counter coup.

By the end of November of that year, the new government had drafted up a Permanent Constitution and it was formally signed by King Prajadhipok on December 10, 1932, thus ending 150 years of absolute monarchy.

King Prajadhipok at the signing of the Constitution

King Prajadhipok at the signing of the Constitution

The constitution

The constitution

To see more pictures from the 1932 coup d’état, visit my image blog, Siamese Visions.


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.


Bangkok: City of Swamps and Scams

If you’re thinking of buying a house in Bangkok, take a few minutes to read on and consider whether it’s a sensible investment.

Construction methods in Thailand’s capital leave a lot to be desired and first-time foreign witnesses of this antediluvian approach to building are often shocked at the conditions under which labourers carry-out their tasks.  It is not uncommon to see entire families shacked up in make-shift homes on the side of the road while they complete a building project. Children run euphorically around the site while mum and dad toil under the burden of heavy loads, wearing open-toe shoes and wide-brimmed hats as their only safety gear. A project which would take a month to complete in the West, takes five months in Bangkok. Houses are erected on bamboo scaffolding, concrete mixed with water from polluted sources, and contractors cut corners on material costs then pocket the difference.

Bangkok construction worker

Bangkok construction worker

Needless to say then that many houses in Bangkok don’t last long and, like many things in Thailand, behind the pretty white-painted façade, are the deep cracks and structural weaknesses that will leave your investment practically worthless in around 10 years. For those who have visited or lived in Thailand, “ghost buildings” are a common sight. These empty shells stand disused and blackened from pollution, with remnants of the former occupants – posters on the walls, curtains fluttering in the wind – still left untouched, creating an eerie effect. Many of these ghost buildings are half-finished projects that were left undone after money dried up in the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Some of them are just abandoned apartment complexes that are no longer structurally safe.

Ghost building in Bangkok

Ghost building in Bangkok

And if that’s not enough to convince you that buying property in Thailand is an iffy business, get this: Bangkok is sinking. Yes, you heard it, our beloved city of angels is sinking, and experts predict that parts of the city may have to be abandoned as encroaching waves are aided by poor drainage systems, depressions in the earth’s crust – caused by water for industry being extracted from underground aquifers – and poor flood defences. Once dubbed the “Venice of the East,” Bangkok started out as a trading post on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, where natural and man-made canals provided transport and drainage. During the post-World War II race to modernize, many of the canals were filled in as the automobile-hungry population demanded road space.

khun samut chin

khun Samut Chin - Temple being pounded by waves on the Gulf of Thailand

Because Bangkok is built on sediment, rather than bedrock, the city is slowly sinking. Estimates vary from 2 to 4 inches per year but that it is sinking cannot be disputed. Parts of the capital are already below sea level and the coastline rises just 3 to 5 feet above the Gulf of Thailand. Smith Dharmasaroja, chair of the government’s Committee of National Disaster Warning Administration, says that Bangkok will be under sea permanently in the next 15 to 20 years. Bangkok is the heart of Thailand and if it goes under water, “everything would stop,” says Dharmasaroja. Experts all agree that Bangkok is headed for trouble, though no-one agrees on when. However, one thing to consider is that Bangkok has been under the sea before, as recently as 5,000 years ago; perhaps this swampy city is headed there again!