Wang Dusit — or the Celestial Dwelling — forms the main administrative centre of the Thai kingdom. The district was established by King Chulalongkorn, who wanted to escape the cluttered area of Rattanakosin Island — the older part of Bangkok toward the west where the Grand Palace complex sits on the Chao Phraya river. Dusit Palace eventually became the primary — although unofficial — residence of the kings since Chulalongkorn’s reign. Unfortunately its not possible to see any of the palace buildings from the train. You will be able to see the moat that surrounds the palace, its walls, and some of the King’s Royal Guards stationed at points around it.
King Rama 9
Chitralada Palace was built by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI), and was the primary Bangkok residence of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej (or Rama the 9th) — the father of the current King of Thailand. Rama 9 was an interesting guy, and worth learning about. But I have to be careful here for a few reasons:
- He is so absolutely and resolutely loved by Thai people, who are still grieving his recent passing, and I don’t want to risk offending by not getting the story right
- Thailand’s strict force majeste laws mean that I could end up prison if I get this wrong (fingers crossed!)
- I truly have much respect for him, and don’t want to give you the impression that I’m only so positive about him for the above two reasons
But he’s worth talking about here because, until his health forced him to be in Siriraj Hospital leading up to his passing in 2016, he spent a lot of his life in Chitralada Palace.
But more so, Rama 9 was the leading character in the story of the Thai nation over the last century. He was comfortably the world’s longest-reigning monarch, and also the longest to have ever reigned as an adult — just over 70 years. Despite being served by 30 prime ministers in his time, my reading of modern Thai history suggests that his influence quietly nudged the country at critical junctures, and he quietly toiled for Thailand’s development behind the scenes.
So let me explain why, even after applying a skeptical eye, I’m a great fan of Rama 9…
Firstly, he got really into hobbies. At age 7, he was given a camera, which ignited a lifelong passion for photography. At age 15, when he lived in Switzerland during WWII, he picked up a saxophone and discovered jazz — another lifelong passion. At age of 17, he began studying science at the University of Lausanne — yet another lifelong passion.
Secondly, he committed to his passions throughout his life. He became an accomplished photographer and expert jazz saxophonist. When he got into amateur radio, he founded a Thai society for it. When he got into sailboat design, he won a sailing gold medal in the 1967 Southeast Asian Games.
But I think what I like most about the cut of his jib is that he turned the Wang Dusit palace grounds into a laboratory for agricultural sciences!
Throughout his life, Wang Dusit was an operational farm. It had rice paddy, a rice mill, aquaculture ponds, dairy pastures, dairy processing factory, and mushroom cultivation. It wasn’t a fad — the farm still operates to this day, and you can even buy products from it in supermarkets and airports. Keep an eye out for the “Royal Chitralada” branded goods, especially the milk candies.
Rama 9 also launched his own scientific experiments and projects revolving around agricultural productivity. He holds patents for methods of making artificial rain, and aerating waste water. Some of the parks around Thailand have his design of water aerator installed in their ornamental ponds.
So he lived a rich, accomplished life in addition to being a King, which, curiously, he was never meant to be. He was actually born the younger brother of the heir to the Kingdom. But about 1 year after commencing his studies in sciences as a young man, King Rama the 8th was killed under mysterious circumstances. This triggered Rama 9’s unexpected ascent to the throne. However, instead of returning home, he appointed his uncle as Regent, determined to complete his studies. Except he took on a new major — Political Science.
While visiting Paris during his studies, he fell in love with the Thai Ambassador’s daughter. They were married in what was described in the New York Times as the “shortest, simplest royal wedding ever held in the land of gilded elephants and white umbrellas”. Queen Sirikit became the world’s longest-serving consort, and still survives today.
After graduating, the 21 year old King was enjoying the final days of life in Switzerland before his return to Thailand to take up his duties. He was alone, driving himself along lake Geneva when he collided with the rear end of a truck. His injuries left part of his face paralysed, and lacerations cost him his sight in the right eye. Knowing this might help you identify his portraits around Thailand.
He eventually returned home and was coronated in time for decades of military coups and turmoil in which Thailand’s modern political form took shape, and questions about the role of monarchy in Thailand — that had remained unanswered since the overthrow of absolute monarchy in the 30s — were answered.
Rama 9’s legacy
A full reading of modern Thai politics is not feasible in this humble format, but my reading on Rama 9’s legacy is as follows:
The 20th Century hit Southeast Asia like a storm. Monarchies fell, colonies violently rose. Then colonies fell, autocracies rose even more violently. Then the cold war laid waste to Indochina. But when compared with its drifting and capsizing neighbours, Thailand faired these same treacherous waters reasonably well. Why?
The answer is probably manyfold and complex, but I believe that Rama 9 made the monarchy something Thailand needed — a rudder. With storms raging, the monarchy hid beneath it all and consistently pointed and corrected the country towards a steady set of Thai values. A rudder isn’t the whole boat, but it plays its role. He made a difference.
So as we chug past the Celestial Dwelling, put on some jazz.
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