October 23rd is a national holiday in Thailand to mark Chulalongkorn Day. The public holiday commemorates one of Thailand’s most revered kings, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), who passed away on October 23rd 1910 at the age of 57. He had ruled what was then Siam, for 42 years.
Image of King Chulalongkorn the Great (Rama V) seen on reverse of Thai 100 Baht note
Born in 1853, Chulalongkorn came to the throne when he was just 16 years old. His long reign proved to be one of foresight and modernisation. At a time when colonial powers such as Britain, France and Portugal were extending their influence in Asia, King Chulalongkorn managed to keep Thailand independent with a clever mixture of diplomacy and leadership.
The Modernizing King
The King modernized government and streamlined the administration of the country by dividing it into provinces and districts. He abolished slavery and replaced the traditional lunar calendar with the Western calendar. Siam was a Buddhist country but he made it clear that other religions (including Islam and Christianity) should have the freedom to practise without fear of persecution. Communications in the country were improved greatly with the introduction of postal services, the telegraph and the construction of Thailand’s first railway (from Bangkok to Ayutthaya).
The King and I
As a youngster, Chulalongkorn was educated by Thai and European tutors including Anna Leonowens who later became famous after she was portrayed in the movie ‘The King and I‘. The boy prince in the story was a portrayal of Chulalongkorn.
Man of the People
Although he lived a life of great privilege, King Chulalongkorn went out of his way to find out what life was like for the common people of Siam. He would sometimes disguise himself and walk amongst his subjects unrecognised so that he could find out what life was like for them. He earned the title of “Great Beloved King” and it wasn’t just in Siam that he made an impact. He was the first Thai monarch to visit Europe and in Sweden there is even a road named after him and a memorial to commemorate his visit.
Remembering King Chulalongkorn
Virtually every province in Thailand has at least one memorial to King Chulalongkorn and on October 23rd each year these become the focus for offerings in his honour with the most famous statue being the Equestrian Statue at the Royal Plaza in front of the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok.
Portraits of King Chulalongkorn are believed to be a good luck charm for businesses and many shops and businesses carry images of the present king alongside his grandfather, King Chulalongkorn. His picture can also be found on the back of Thailand’s 100 Baht note. Thailand’s first university was founded in 1917 and the Bangkok seat of learning was named after the king. Today, students affectionately refer to the venerable institution as, ‘Chula’.