“Besides Bangkok there is nowhere else as good and as friendly as Java.”
King Chulalangkorn, 1901
IO – Many Thai people consider King Chulalangkorn (1853-1910) to be their greatest king. Interestingly, for Indonesians he was very taken with Java. He visited it several times, sometimes for months on end and it is apparent that he had a genuine affection for the island, the nature, its arts and culture and people.
Most people in the world probably know King Chulalangkorn through the 1870 memoirs of his teacher Anna Leonowens “The English Governess at the Siamese Court”. In it she recorded her experiences as teacher to the thirty-nine wives and concubines and eighty-two children of King Mongkut of Thailand. Her star pupil, was Crown Prince Chulalangkorn.
Later Leonowens story was made into numerous plays and films, the most recent being the 1999 American production of “Anna and the King” starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun- Fat. It is the fourth film version and as with all previous films and plays before it “Anna and the King of Siam” was banned under the Thai law prohibiting anyone from portraying the Thai king in a disrespectful manner. Historians say Leonowens exaggerated her own role and depicted King Mongkut as a clown. In fact she very seldom saw King Mongkut. Hollywood’s treatment of the story continued this disrespect of the historical facts. In reality King Mongkut was an extraordinarily astute and intelligent king who succeeded in preventing Thailand from being colonized by the imperialist powers greedily eyeing Thailand and laid the foundation stones for modernization and prosperity. King Mongkut provided his children with a Western education beside their Thai education to prepare them for the modern world and to deal with the colonial countries eager to add Thailand to their hoard of colonies.
King Chulalangkorn ‘s father, King Mongkut spent twenty-seven years before becoming king as a Buddhist monk. He sought Western learning and was very well-educated, speaking several languages. King Mongkut who is honoured as the “Father of Modern Science and Technology” was on a trip to the Malay Peninsula in 1867 to verify his calculations of the solar eclipse when he and his son, Prince Chulalangkorn contracted malaria. King Mongkut passed away from complications of the disease but his 15 year old son survived. Following in his father’s footsteps King Chulalangkorn who in 1873 took the name of King Rama V brought both government and social reform and like his father he saved Thailand from colonial expansionism.
King Rama V made three trips to Java in 1871, 1896 and 1901. Imtip Pattajoti Suharto, a Thai lady who is married to an Indonesian and who has lived in Indonesia since 1978 has written a book about King Rama V’s travels to Java entitled “Journeys to Java by a Siamese King”. She says that “Since he chose to visit Java three times … I began to feel that there was something here that really attracted his attention and since I spent more than half my life in Indonesia I became curious to know where he went… and after reading his Majesty’s diaries I was very impressed by how he constantly thought of the country and its people. ”
The first trip was for 18 year old King Chulalangkorn a study tour to see how foreigners governed their country, how the Dutch ruled someone else’s land. Java was considered extremely advanced at the time. It had all the new technologies and to Thai people it was considered civilized,” explained Imtip Suharto. King Rama V made comparative studies of what he had seen and wrote down his observations to share with others at home.”
In the 19th century Thailand was surrounded by potential colonizers. No colonizer of course admitted that countries were annexed for their wealth instead they perpetuated the myth that they were there to help civilize countries who had not yet met the standard of civilization. Thailand embarked on an extensive course of modernization and progress as part of its strategy to avoid colonization. Building on the foundations left by his father, King Mongkut, King Rama V continued to carry out strategies to avoid colonization. This was done in two ways: on the one hand he modernized Thailand in order to show that it already met the standard of civilization. On the other, the Thais excelled in diplomacy and went out of their way to exhibit their friendship (and of course equality) towards other countries especially powerful ones such as Britain and France. During his travels in Indonesia and Malaya for example the King not only sent warm thank you letters to the governor generals for their hospitality but also to the British and Dutch queens who invariably responded with courteous and friendly replies. Imtip Suharto writes of him, “Owing to the great wisdom of the much-loved King Chulalangkorn the Siamese people have been able to enjoy the sweet air of sovereignty.”
Progress and modernization held an important role in determining the standard of civilization of a nation so King Rama V reformed the bureaucracy and civil service doing away with corruption and bureaucratic delay. He also reformed the military and the tax and judicial systems. King Mongkut had imbued in him the Buddhist ideals of Dhammaraja or the “Just King” and from his Western education he learnt corresponding ideas of justice and democracy. He was genuinely committed to these ideals and it is why he abolished slavery.
The King was also interested in the material aspects of reform such as schools, railways, roads, telegraph, factories for manufacturing and plantations for commodities. “King Rama V had heard about the new trains in Semarang (where the railway built its headquarters) so from Batavia he went directly to Semarang to see the trains. He travelled everywhere by train and during his third trip had a special train placed at his disposal. Many years later he established a railway in Thailand,” remarked Mrs Suharto.
However, King Rama’s policies were not just political. Some of them came purely from his love for the Thai people. One of these was abolishing slavery. “King Rama V abolished slavery and he managed to do so peacefully without need for a civil war,” declared Suharto proudly.
“Before his second trip to Thailand King Rama had lost parts of Thailand to the French. His brother who was his diarist wrote in his preface that after the losses the King was ill and depressed and angry at himself for loosing part of Thailand. His doctors recommended that he go to Java to relax and regain his health. This is why he visited Garut with its spa and health inducing hot water springs,” explained Suharto.
King Rama V said that there were still so many things to see in Java and that was the reason for his third trip there. Unfortunately, his son Prince Asdang fell seriously ill in Bandung and so the King spent most of his time there and did not see as much as he wanted. He thought that the prince would die and was already thinking how to take back the prince’s body to Thailand should he die.”
The King had two doctors come from Batavia who watched over his son day and night. Fortunately, Prince Asdang did not die and in his great joy the king paid the doctors twice the fee they would normally have received. During his son’s recovery his Dutch doctors said that he must drink a glass of milk each day so the king obtained a cow which produced such good milk that King Rama V had dairy cows sent back to Thailand on his royal yacht the Maha Cakri. Besides cows King Rama also admired the horses he saw in Java.
Later in Garut a hundred horses were paraded in front of him and finally he chose 15 to send to Thailand with “Si Perak” (Silver) a pony for Prince Asdang. He bought more horses in other towns to send to Thailand including a Sumba sandalwood horse he received as a gift. Java had horse breeding everywhere with the government providing pedigree stallions while Thailand at the time was still unable to breed horses successfully. He bought so many horses that later a hundred men had to be hired to cut enough grass for them to eat on the journey to Thailand and until they had adjusted to their new environment.
Meanwhile, to speed his son’s recovery the king ordered daily wayang orang, wayang golek (wooden puppets) and ronggeng performances. These the King and his entourage also enjoyed as they performed the epic Ramayana and Mahabharat stories that Thailand is also familiar with. King Rama liked the dances and music such as the gamelan and angklung (bamboo musical instruments) of which he brought several to take back to Thailand. He said that when the serimpi dancers in Jogjakarta walked they seemed to float with their bodies erect and he commented of the elegant bedoyo dancers of the Susuhunan of Surakarta, “We do not have any dance as soft and as slow”.
The King and his entourage stayed a long time in Bandung because of Prince Asdang’s illness. Another of his sons, Prince Paribatra Sukhumbhand was at a military school in Germany. During his trip to Java the King was very gratified to receive a telegram from the German Emperor informing him that his son had graduated and been appointed a lieutenant in the German army. Later Prince Paribatra became the Thai Minister of the Interior under King Rama VII. After the Revolution of 1932 when Thailand became a constitutional monarchy he went into exile in Bandung where he lived until the end of his life in 1944. In Bandung he built a house on the north side of Jl Cipaganti and created a beautiful flower garden in front of it. This later was separated from the house and became a roundabout called Bunderan Raja Siam. In time it was corrupted to Bunderan Siem. His house still stands with a large sign reading “Dahapati” in front of it but there is now a petrol station on the roundabout.
King Rama appears to have thoroughly enjoyed his visits to Indonesia. He stayed at the best hotels such as the Hotel des Indes in Jakarta, the hotels Homann and Preanger in Bandung, and Bellevue in Bogor from which he had lovely views of the jungle. He considered the food and cleanliness at the Hotel Homann below par, giving it a 4th class rating. He also derived pleasure from the many Dutch clubs where he frequently dined. The Sala Sahathai Samakhom building that he built in the Grand Palace complex is a copy of the Club Concordia in Batavia.
The King enjoyed fruit such as rambutans and jambu mawar or rose apples (now a rare fruit) and when he arrived in Tosari the Resident gave him a basket of peaches which most Indonesians would be surprised to know can even grow in Indonesia. The Dutch were good gardeners and agriculturists and the King loved the Bogor Botanical Gardens where so much work was carried out with regard to new plantation plants such as coffee, tea and cinchona for malaria. He had a very warm relationship with its director, Dr Treub. When King Rama V visited it in 1901 he was presented with six spotted deer from the Bogor Palace and the King was delighted with the night-flowering lotus that was the centre piece of the Governor General’s dining table and gradually began to bloom as the night wore on. Later he brought back many workers and gardeners from Java to Thailand. Thailand is now known for its excellent agricultural policies nurtured by the Thai kings which have produced the best fruit many of which originated from Indonesia.
As a Buddhist King Rama was deeply interested in the Borobodur and also Prambanan (for the Ramayana and Mahabharata are of course Hindu epics that are well known in Thailand). He took home four Buddha statues from Borobodur that now have places of honour at the Phra Mondop in the Grand Palace complex; although the Buddha statues he admired most were those in Candi Mendut. If those were sent to Siam a new temple would be built for them. He knew the head of the Netherlands Indies Archaeological Society, Dr Groneman. When he first saw Borobodur he wrote that it was not possible to describe it in words, that it would be better to see it from pictures but even those would not be as marvelous as seeing it with one’s own eyes. Dr Groneman believed that the Buddha statues there were Mahayana because Buddhism in Java was the same as in China but the King convinced him that they were of Indian influence. On his third trip when they visited Prambana, he commented that Dr Groneman could have given a good presentation “but it was no fun this time because he had become my student so there was nothing on which to disagree with each other.”
King Rama V was committed to progress and reform and it is one of the reasons he visited so many countries. However, modernization did not mean becoming a Westerner. He said, “We must try to imitate what is good elsewhere, and at the same time not only to keep but to develop what is good and worthy of respect in our own national character and institutions”. His visits to Java for which he expressed much warmth created one of the links between two important ASEAN nations, i. e. Thailand and Indonesia. At the end of his second trip King Rama V wrote of the people who had shown him such generosity, warmth and hospitality, “They made me happy while away from my homeland… It is a memory that I shall always cherish with appreciation and satisfaction for the rest of my life.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)
If you enjoyed reading this article you may also enjoy Part I of the article by the same writer: https://observerid.com/king-chulalongkorns-travels-and-collections-from-java-part-i-the-royal-batik-exhibition-now-on-display-in-bangkok/