“Chulalongkorn Day” or “Piyamaharaj Day”, which we say in Thai, is celebrated on 23rd October of every year. It is the day that our King Chulalongkorn, or King Rama V, died. He is one of our most important kings in the past. The most important thing he did is abolish slavery but he also did many other reforms in order to modernize the country.
King Chulalongkorn (Phra Chulachom Klao Chaoyuhua or RamaV) succeeded to the throne at the death of his father, King Mongkut (or Phra Chom Klao). He was born on September 20, 1853 the first son of Queen Ramphai Pamarapirom (Thepsirindra) and the 9th surviving son of King Mongkut. King Rama V ascended the Throne in 1868 at the age of 15, with Chao Phraya Sri Suriyawongse as Regent.
King Rama V’s long reign of 42-years was a busy era of full-scale reform and the emergence of Thailand into the modern age. He learned the systems of Western Governments, made friends with major powers such as Britain, France, America and Russia and sent the royal children to be educated in the West. It seems he was prepared to learn from the West while at the same time, resisting domination by the major powers. Above all, he was the first Thai monarch who traveled widely: to neighboring countries in Asia and to Europe twice. Wherever he went, he was impressed by the hospitality and respect shown to him by the Royalty of the various countries.
The King’s reforms, which involved almost every aspect of Thai life, included the abolition of slavery, the expansion of the communication system through the construction of railways, the establishment of post and telegraph services and the creation of a ministerial system in 1892. In addition, the King also established a variety of public utilities, particularly in the fields of health and education. Unfortunately, world events at that time did not allow him to proceed smoothly with his administrative reform as it coincided with the age of colonialism. The King, therefore, had to adapt his foreign policy to maintain a balance between the contending powers. He fostered friendly relations with all powers and avoided confrontation. In the last period of his reign, the country lost a lot of land to France. Thus, at the time of crisis, even though Thailand had to sacrifice some of her territories, she was able to keep her independence.
King Chulalongkorn wanted to make the people less subservient, thus, in 1873 after the coronation, he proclaimed that prostration in front of the king was to be abolished. Later, in 1905 he abolished slavery. This slave abolition was the most important royal contribution. The Slave Act was passed by King Rama V in 1905 to prohibit slave-trade. The King traveled extensively throughout the kingdom to personally investigate and share his subjects’ conditions and aspirations, often known in Thai as “Prapasstion”. It is very difficult to mention all of his numerous reforms. All the present-day ministries and departments owe their origin of his far-sighted concepts.
Information in this page mainly comes from a book called “Essays on Thailand” by Thanapol Chadchaidee. It is used here with his permission. The book contains 60 essays about Thailand written in Thai and English.
King Chulaongkorn is more well-known in the West as the “boy king” in the movie and musical “The King and I”. We have an extensive web site called “The King and I: Fact or Fiction?” which takes a close look at the movie and books with an intention to set the record straight.