Ayutthaya, Capital of a Kingdom, Part 29
King Chulalongkorn - Rama V of Siam
The Human Side of a Great Monarch
To be a Royal, especially nowadays, can sometimes be overbearingly irksome. Having constantly to be "on parade", living in a goldfish bowl of constant exposure and smiling even when one feels least like smiling. Despite the many perceived privileges, it must sometimes be a difficult, wearisome task, which few would envy. Tradition, culture and protocol to accept his or her position and not to flinch when adversity faces them train a Royal. It is a mantle of service to their country which, usually, is worn for life. Media interest and attention was not so intense during the reign of King Chulalongkorn but, as an Absolute Monarch, he was constantly to the fore in the governance of Siam. His own subjects, Members of Government, Nobility, Overseas Representatives and visiting dignitaries constantly sought him out for guidance, decision making and leadership. In modern parlance, King Chulalongkorn was both Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of his Kingdom of Siam. But he was also human, and humane, and it gave Rama V great pleasure to participate in the "ordinary" aspects of life.
It was normal within Siamese culture to take more than one wife and King Chulalongkorn was no exception. His Supreme wife was Queen Saowabha but it is understood that he had 91 wives of whom thirty-six were officially recorded -- they being the birth mothers of the King's 77 children (44 daughters, 32 sons and an unfortunate miscarriage). Rama V was a devoted father but not to the point of spoiling any of his children. His sons earned his special interest as great things were expected of them in the future. Indeed, all of the King's sons were sent abroad to finish their academic education. Most went to Great Britain but others went to Denmark, Russia and Germany. Each and every son, when studying overseas, received regular letters from the King's own hand.
It is the heartbreak of any parent to lose a child or children; King Chulalongkorn suffered this latter tragedy with overwhelming grief. Queen Sunanda (full sister of Supreme Queen Saowabha) was travelling, with her royal children, by barge up the Chao Phraya River from Bangkok to the Bang-Pa-In Summer Palace. Entirely by accident, the barge capsized and the Royal Family were thrown into the water. Rescue was delayed until too late as horrified watchers were fearful of laying hands on the Royal Personages. All were drowned. King Chulalongkorn afterwards instructed a memorial to his Queen Sunanda and children be raised in the ornate gardens of Bang-Pa-In Summer Palace. It is still there and may be seen by anyone visiting the palace.
One of King Chulalongkorn's escapes was into the world of cookery and picnicking. The King enjoyed tasty food Thai, Chinese and European and it gave him great pleasure to personally cook for friends gathered together for a picnic. Indeed, the King gained so much relaxation from "kitchen experiences" he authored a book of recipes. The "how to" recipe book features over 200 dishes including those for meat, poultry, pork, seafood, salads and sandwiches. A well-known picnic photograph shows King Chulalongkorn, clad only in a Thai sarong (pha khaw maa) hunched over a cooking fire as he personally prepares an al fresco meal. The photograph was possibly taken at the Bang-Pa-In Summer Palace.
Another of the King's relaxations was to travel around his kingdom without the trappings of monarchy. As mentioned earlier, the Press and paparrazzi were not so much in evidence during those days so King Chulalongkorn was generally able to travel incognito when he wished to do so. The King would travel either by horse carriage or by small boat when exploring coastal villages, accompanied by some of his children and close friends. It is interesting that King Chulalongkorn's illustrious father, King Mongkut, got to know his people during 27 years traversing Siam as a monk -- now the present king was doing the same by travelling as an ordinary person and meeting the people. King Chulalongkorn, as an "ordinary guy", dropped in on villages, attended their feast days or weddings or simply sat around exchanging the news and gossip of the day.
Parents like to see their offspring do well and King Chulalongkorn was no exception. However, again like every other parent, he had no guarantee that any of his children would do exactly as he wanted. Such was the case with one of the King's sons, Prince Chakrabongse (who was 2nd in line to the Throne). Since Tsar Nicholas II of Russia was a great, personal friend of King Chulalongkorn, it was not surprising that one of the King's sons was invited to study in Russia. Prince Chakrabongse was chosen to accept this honour. The young Prince was already studying in England, and was fluent in English, so he now transferred to the elite Corps des Pages (a famous military college) in St. Petersburg. To King Chulalongkorn's proud delight, Prince Chakrabongse did exceedingly well; the young man learnt the Russian language, mastered his studies and rose in the ranks of the Corps. It only went wrong, in King Chulalongkorn's eyes, when Prince Chakrabongse fell in love with a young Russian girl, Katerina, whom he secretly married. This marriage was the despair of both King Chulalongkorn and Queen Saowabha as it was unheard of for Siamese Royalty to marry outside their own Siamese circle. Nevertheless, the deed was done and King Chulalongkorn suffered the upset of any normal parent over what they considered a "wilful" child.
It wasn't often that King Chulalongkorn was able to relax by escaping the Affairs of State and, by the turn of the century, he'd been the Siamese Monarch for 32 odd years. Such was the workload he gave himself (rarely was anything done without the King's personal involvement) a weariness had begun to set in and, at times, the King was feeling quite unwell. But he continued to push himself so after his hugely successful European visits of 1897 he decided to go again in 1907. King Chulalongkorn considered it important that he maintained a high profile for Siam amongst European nations (he was held in high regard and respect by European Royalty), however, the 1907 visit had another agenda which was known by only a few.
The Siamese King was seeking European medical opinion for his ailment. Siamese physicians had advocated rest and less stress but these were medicines the King declined to take. Some "time out" was taken when King Chulalongkorn reached London when he spent time at Windsor Castle in the convivial company of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Unfortunately, medical prognosis was not comforting but the King adopted a "Mai pen rai" (never mind) attitude and returned to Siam to be as busy as ever. However, he did contemplate abdicating on his 60th birthday. To this end, he purchased land in a rural area and built a "homey" wooden residence which he named "Phya Thai" (Lord Thai). The idea was that King Chulalongkorn and Queen Saowabha would retire to "Phya Thai" as country gentlefolk and farmers. The King had remarked "I will not for all my life remain a King, but I want to be the King's father".
However, the King's dream never came to fruition as the demands of public life continued unabated. Being an Absolute Monarch was one thing but the additions of responsibility plus genuine caring and benevolence made it a heavy burden. In 1908, after being on the Siamese Throne for 40 years, King Chulalongkorn was surprised, touched and gratified when his Nobility, Government and people requested permission to honour him with a statue. He accepted an equestrian statue and ordinary people flocked to donate even a few baht for the sculpting, casting and erecting of the statue. It was a memorial from the hearts of the Siamese people and this had never, ever happened before! It is worth noting that the Statue Fund was massively oversubscribed (the King had desired only a modest statue) and, at King Chulalongkorn's wish, surplus money was gifted to the Civil Service College -- which, later, was renamed as Chulalongkorn University.
As was later revealed, King Chulalongkorn was suffering from a severe kidney complaint -- and he had not heeded medical advice to ease up on his workload. By 1910 the condition had worsened to an alarming degree. On the 16th October of that year King Chulalongkorn slipped into a coma from which he never recovered. He died, shortly after midnight, on the 23rd October 1910.
Queen Saowabha was inconsolable at her husband's death -- and remained so for the rest of her life. The King's passing devastated the Royal Family, Government and the entire nation. Most of the populace had never known Siam without King Chulalongkorn at the helm. The people's beloved Monarch had been on the Siamese Throne for 42 years and the nation was so shocked it couldn't contemplate Siam without him. The Royal Court was in turmoil as documents pertaining to State Protocol for mourning and funeral ceremonials had not seen the light of day since the death of King Mongkut. However, all was eventually accomplished and the State Funeral of King Chulalongkorn brought Bangkok and the entire nation of Siam to a standstill. Siamese people, usually very conservative regarding the public display of emotions, wept openly on the streets.
Nowadays, on the 23rd October each year, people gather to lay wreaths and flowers at the foot of King Chulalongkorn's statue. This date has been officially declared as "Chulalongkorn Day" (or Piyamaharaj Day) as the nation continues to honour and pay homage to this unique Siamese Monarch. His Majesty King Chulalongkorn, Rama V of Siam, perhaps the Greatest of the Great. May his spirit rest in peace.