Although you won’t be able to see Klai Kangwon Palace from the Thai Southern Line, it is very nearby. It was the summer residence of a man who’s face you might recognise.
His Magesty King Bhumibhol Adulyadej (or the easier to pronounce Rama IX) used this palace as his full-time residence from 2004 until his health forced him to be in and around Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok leading up to his recent passing in 2016. At the time, King Bhumibhol was the world’s longest reigning monarch, and the longest reigning monarch to have ever reigned as an adult – a period of just over 70 years.
As a constitutional Monarchy, modern Thailand has probably not been quite so shaped by any other person. Although he was served by a total of 30 prime ministers in his time, all of which had more executive activity than the King, my reading of modern Thai history suggests that his influence and judgement quietly nudged the country at critical junctures, and he even more quietly toiled for Thailand’s development behind the scenes. And although it may be easy to find little wrong with a man who for 70 years it has been illegal to criticise, even when applying an apporpriate amount of skepticism, I’ve decided I’m a big fan of this guy.
By all accounts, he was an interesting man. He was given a camera at the age of 7, which ignited a lifelong passion for photography. During WWII, while living with his family in Switzerland, he picked up a saxophone at age 15 and got seriously into jazz – another lifelong passion.
At age of 17, as the war was coming to an end, he bagan studying science at the University of Lausanne, which became yet another lifelong passion. He launched his own scientific projects revolving around agricultural productivity: he holds patents for methods of making artificial rain, and aerating waste water. He turned his palace grounds into experimental farms, some of which produce products you can find in supermarkets today under the Royal Chitralada brand. He was also big into amateur radio, fire-arms, and sailboat design (he actually won a gold medal in the 1967 Southeast Asian Games for sailing).
But a year after commencing his studies, his elder brother – King Rama VIII – was killed under circumstances that remain unclear, which triggered his ascent to the throne. He appointed his uncle as Regent, and completed his studies with a new major of Political Science.
While visiting Paris during his studies, he fell in love with the daughter of the Thai Ambassador to France. 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 would become the world’s longest-serving concort, and at the time of writing survives Rama IX.
After graduating, the 21 year old King was enjoying the final days of free life in Switzerland, driving himself along lake Geneva he collided with the rear end of a truck. His injuries left half of his face paralysed, and his facial lascerations cost him the sight in his right eye. If don’t know his face yet, with that in mind you may begin begin to recognise him in guilded posters placed all over Thailand.
After his healing, he returned to Thailand for his long-overdue corronation. The next decades saw a procession of military coups where Thailand’s political form took shape, and in which questions of the role of monarchy in Thailand (that remained unanswered since the overthrow of absolute monarchy in the 30s) were answered. A full reading of modern Thai politics is not feasible in this humble format. But the way I see it, particularly when compared with its drifting and turbulent neighbours, Rama IX made the monarchy what Thailand needed – a rudder. As the 20th century national and geopolitics stormed overhead, the monarchy hid beneath it all and consistently pointed and corrected the country to a firm set of Thai values.
The name Klai Kang Won means “far from worries”. The palace was built in 1926 once the Thai southern line was officially linked. It comprises of 4 main buildings made in a stilted variation of a traditional spanish estate. Residences of other family members range in styles from modern Thai architecture to log cabins. Whenever the King or members of the royal family are in residence, the road running parallel to the tracks about 150 metres toward the coast will be decorated with royal flags corresponding to that particular member of the family. If not, then it might be open to public visits, but you may need to get a permit from the Royal Household Office.