October 23 – Chulalongkorn Day in Thailand

Posted on October 23, 2015

Today is a day of memorial, to commemorate “The Great Beloved King” (Phra Piya Maharat), Chulalongkorn.

You may think that Chulalongkorn is a long name, but I think that his proper name is Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poraminthra Maha Chulalongkorn Phra Chunla Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua. Which is...even longer!

Even though I rarely saw him referred to in this way, there is a shortcut to referring to this great king: King Rama V.

Why was this guy so great?

Chulalongkorn was able to modernize Siam (which is the old name for Thailand); he was able to make governmental and social reforms; he was able to prevent Siam from being colonized.

Actually, “Western expansionism” – which is what we sometimes call the colonizing efforts by European nations and the U.S. – did threaten Siam during Chulalongkorn's reign, and Siam did lose territory – chunk after chunk! – but Siam/Thailand is the only nation in Southeast Asia that was not colonized.

Chulalongkorn was born on September 20, 1853. He became king when his father died of malaria. He was just 15 years old – and he seemed to be dying of malaria, as well! However, Chulalongkorn managed to pull through, and he was tutored in public affairs while a powerful official acted as regent.

Finally, in 1873, when Chulalongkorn was 20 years old, he was crowned king in his own right. (Which means that he no longer needed a regent.)

One reason that Chulalongkorn was so reform-minded is that he was young and probably idealistic. Another reason is that he was able to travel to visit Singapore and British India, learning how other places were governed and picking up some of the better ideas from Western culture.

Chulalongkorn sent his sons, the royal princes, to Europe to be educated. So these young people felt even more reform-minded! They learned about and visited republics such as France and constitutional monarchies such as the United Kingdom. Chulalongkorn himself was able to travel a lot. He visited Sweden for the World Fair, and during his reign he visited many countries, including the U.S., Great Britain, France, and Russia.

Here are some of the best things Chulalongkorn accomplished:

  • He abolished Siamese slavery.
  • He connected various parts of the nation with Bangkok by railways.
  • He electrified the country and put electric lights along the roads.
  • He established a plumbing system.

By the way, that abolishing slavery thing was no simple task! When Chulalongkorn first became king, more than one-third of the Thai population were slaves. Many people had sold themselves into slavery when they had no money to pay their bills, and then all of the children born into slavery were considered slaves, too. Chulalongkorn was able to take several steps by which all the slaves were freed and then passed a bill stating that all workers should be paid. He ended slavery without needing to fight a war or shed blood!

Chulalongkorn died on this date in 1910. He was 57 years old.

By the way...

Chulalongkorn's father, King Mongkut, was the fellow who had hired an Anglo-Indian woman named Anna Leonowens to be a teacher for his children, and she had worked with the royal family for six years before the king died and Chulalongkorn became king. When that happened, Chulalongkorn wrote to Leonowens thanking her for her services. Although he didn't keep her as governess, Chulalongkorn and Leonowens wrote friendly letters to one another for many years.

Leonowens's experiences as teacher to the Siamese king's children were later fictionalized in a best-selling novel, several movies, a TV series, and a musical!

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