Friday, September 29, 2023 | 01:54 WIB

King Chulalongkorn’s travels and collections from Java Part II: The King’s affection for Java and his travels there

 “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.

King Chulalangkorn at his coronation
1870. Photo credit:

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.”

King Chulalangkorn and his entourage with the Susuhunan of Surakarta and the Resident on his second trip to Java in 1896. The King is in the centre wearing a white feathered hat, arm in arm with the Susuhunan. (photo: The National Archive of Thailand Doc.)

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.

A full portrait of King Chulalangkorn or Rama V. (photo: The National Archive of Thailand Doc.)

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.

King Chulalongkorn or Rama V during his second Grand Tour of Europe in 1907. He is seated with several of his sons who were studying in England. Rama V is seated in the centre of the photo. Crown Prince Vajirayudh (Later to become King Rama VI) is standing behind Rama V. Standing furthest to the left is Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath. Credit Photo:

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”.

King Chulalongkorn at the Alexander Palace on his visit to Russia in 1897. From right to left are seated: the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna of Russia, King Chulalongkorn or Rama V, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (the mother of Tsar Nicholas II), Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Behind the Tsar is standing Thai Crown Prince Maha Vajiravudh who later became Rama VI. Rama V frequently vsited other countries to learn from their systems of government. One of his sons also studied in the Russian military and became an officer. Credit Photo:

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.

One of the four Buddha statues from the Borobodur given to Rama V during a trip to Java. All four statues were placed in the Phra Mondop building in the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok where they can be see still today. (photo: IO/Tamalia)

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 wearing a dodot with assistance from the Susuhunan of Surakarta. The King appears to have loved batik for he bought over 300 pieces of batik on his trips to Java. (photo: Doc. of The Amnat Chobtham Collection, Bangkok)

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:


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