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The Chakri dynasty, founded in 1782, has shaped Thailand for the past 230 years, contributing to the economic and cultural development of the country, building infrastructure, Buddhist temples and schools, and giving the first permanent constitution to the people in 1932.
The dynasty, formed by dissimilar men with dissimilar personalities, worked for the well-being of Thailand, fighting for its place in the international scene.
Its legacy is still admirable today: the kings, all followers of Theravada Buddhism, built many notable temples that constitute some of the main attractions in the country, and especially in Bangkok. The Royal Palace is a majestic building, an interesting combination of styles difficult to forget.
Thongduang was the son of a nobleman. At a young age he became a page of King Uthomphon, the penultimate monarch of Ayutthaya. At the age of 21, he served as a monk. He then fought against the Burmese army along with Taksin and recaptured Ayutthaya, which had been under Burmese control.
Thongduang gradually increased in prominence. In 1791 he returned after a campaign against Cambodia, and Taksin was executed by his ministers. Thongduang took his opportunity and founded the Chakri dynasty, becoming king Rama I in 1782. He moved the capital to the east of Chao Phraya river.
During his reign, Siam became stronger and was able to repel Burmese armies and extend its control over Laos and Cambodia. The king encouraged the building of many temples, and during his reign the construction of the Royal Palace in Bangkok began.
The Palace (218,400 sqm) is situated on the bank of the Chao Phraya river, and is made up of numerous buildings, halls, pavilions, gardens, and courtyards. Today, it is open to the public as a museum, though it is still a working palace, with several royal offices.
Directly south of the Palace, you will find Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. It is a first-class royal temple, and it houses the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand.
The main image is the eponymous 46-meter-long statue of a reclining Buddha. Wat Pho is also an educational center: it is believed to be the birthplace of Thai massage, still practiced inside.
Phra Phutthaloetla Naphalai was born in 1767, and succeeded his father when he died in 1809. As soon as Phra became king, one of Taksin’s sons, Kshatranicht, rebelled claiming his right to become king. Rama II’s (Phra’s) son successfully repressed the rebellion, and became Minister of Foreign Affairs.
During Rama II’s reign, Siam witnessed the last Burmese invasion. The Burmese king, seeing Rama I was dead, tried to conquer Thalang (today Phuket) and other cities. Rama II sent his brother who managed to recapture the fallen cities.
With Rama II, Siam experienced a period of peace and prosperity. The king was a patron to many poets and artists, and his reign has been dubbed “the Golden Age of Rattanakosin Literature”, a cultural renaissance after many years of war. Royal traditions and Thai culture were reconstructed.
Wat Arun (“Temple of Dawn”), one of the most famous landmarks in Bangkok, was built during Rama II’s reign.
Its central prang (a Khmer-style tower) is decorated with fine porcelain and topped by the “Trident of Shiva”, one of the main symbols of Hinduism and Buddhism. Its base is decorated with figures of soldiers and animals, and the second terrace hosts four statues of Hindu gods.
Nangklao became king in 1824, Rama III. His reign saw a renewal of western contacts. Siam helped Britain in the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824), and Andrew Jackson concluded an important treaty with the Siamese kingdom.
Laotian kingdoms became tributary states. The son of the king of Vientiene, Anouvong, was held captive. In 1824, he rebelled against Siam. He captured Korat and moved towards Bangkok.
Korat rebelled against him, however, and Bangkok prepared a counterattack. Anouvong was forced to go back in the direction of Vientiene. He was captured on the border and tortured to death by the king.
In 1833, Rama III, eager to gain power in Cambodia, where Vietnamese influence was strong, supported a rebellion in Vietnam and moved to capture Saigon. He captured Phnom Penh and arrived in Vietnam in 1842. Because of the invasion of French armies, Vietnam had to negotiate peace with Siam, and Ang Duong, the Cambodian prince, was installed as king.
Rama III proceeded to renovate Wat Racha in Bangkok, an old temple which had existed since the Ayutthaya period. While the army was marching to war, it stayed overnight near the temple. Rama III officiated at a blessing ceremony for the warriors, and promised that, in case of victory, he would have the temple renovated.
Rama III died in 1851 without naming a successor, so his half-brother Mongkut took power as Rama IV. Before becoming the king, he spent some time as a monk, wandering around Thailand. He was well known among foreigners as being pro-British. He built the biggest royal family of the dynasty, with 32 wives and 82 children.
In 1849, some internal conflicts weakened Burma, and Rama III had wanted to take advantage of this and gain power over the enemy kingdom, but he died in 1851 before realizing his plan.
In 1852, Mongkut tried to invade Burma but failed, and he decided to try again in 1855 and put Kengtung under siege, but he had to endure another failure.
Mongkut was a practical man of culture. He introduced western geography to Siam, and a European-style education system; and managed to introduce some social changes to improve foreigners’ opinion of Siam. He never abandoned the Siam’s traditional culture, however, restoring many temples and founding the Mangha Puja, a festival to celebrate Buddha’s announcement to his disciples.
In 1864, a temple called Wat Ratchapadit was built on a former coffee plantation in Mongkut’s honor. He built it to give the people living in the Grand Palace a place to practice meditation.
Another temple founded by Rama IV is the Royal Temple of King Monkut (Wat Makut), with unique architecture and many decorations. One feature of this temple is its two sets of sema stones (stones used to form a boundary around the main prayer room). In addition to the usual set, Wat Makut has a second set around the surrounding walls of the temple.
As Rama V, Chulalongkorn’s first reforms were to fight corruption and to abolish the Front Palace (a title equivalent to “second king”). He didn’t help Britain during the Third Anglo-Burmese War, despite agreements to do so, and then proceeded to make some military and political reforms which helped him stabilize the country.
He sent royal princes to study in Europe. They were influenced by rising European nationalism and started calling for democracy and more freedom. They pressed for reforms like those in Mejii Japan, and for Siam to become a constitutional monarchy. Rama V, however, thought the country was not ready yet, and his own political reforms were enough.
Rama V requested the building of Wat Ben, a temple near the Royal Palace. The most notable feature of Wat Bet is the Italian marble used in its construction, and the collection of 53 Buddha images surrounding the temple area.
During his reign, other temples were built in Bangkok, like Wat Ratchabophit, with a Royal Cemetery where many members of the royal family are buried, and Wat Hua Lamphong, which presents a platform dedicated to important Buddhist figures as well as a statue of Rama V.
Vajiravudh’s reign was brief. He became king in 1910, and ruled until his death in 1925. He started moving towards democracy and his first act as king was to build the Royal Pages’ College (now known as Vajiravudh College), built in the tradition of English public schools such as Eton.
In 1911, radicals were disappointed by lack of a new constitution, so they led a coup to overthrow the monarchy. The king, however, managed to arrest all the conspirators and released them soon after, saying that what they had done was for the sake of the kingdom.
In 1917, Rama VI declared war on Germany, seeing World War I as an opportunity to promote Siam nationalism. The war caused serious economic problems to the whole country, but the king managed to build a long railway connecting major cities and the bridge that took his name. He fell ill in 1925 and died on the night of 25th November.
Rama VI built a major Buddhist temple in Bangkok, Wat Boworn, which is also a school for Theravada Buddhism. Its main feature is a large golden chapel (chadi) which houses relics of the Thai royal family. Its interior is adorned with many paintings depicting temple life.
Prajadhipok was the last absolute monarch and the first constitutional monarch of Thailand. He took power when the whole world was facing the Great Depression. He had to face many problems within the country, and chose to proceed with an institutional innovation to restore confidence in the monarchy.
In 1932, a small group of civilians plotted to overthrow the absolute monarchy. This resulted in a bloodless coup, with the goal of asking the king to become a constitutional monarch. The king immediately accepted, and the first permanent constitution was promulgated on 10th December.
During subsequent years, however, his relationship with the new people’s party deteriorated, and the king decided to abdicate, becoming the first Chakri monarch ever to do so.
When Ananda Mahidol became king, he was only 9 years old. He spent a few years in Switzerland, and returned to Thailand only in 1945. But his reign wouldn’t last long: six months later, in June 1946, he was assassinated in his own bed.
Three of his royal pages were arrested and executed. His death is still surrounded in mystery, however, and the topic is still really sensitive in Thailand today.
Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-serving head of state and the longest-reigning monarch in Thailand, succeeded his brother Ananda at the time of his death. When he took power, a military man, Plaek Phibunsongkhram, was in charge, and Rama IX was just a ceremonial figure. In 1957, however, General Sarit accused Phibunsongkharm of lèse-majesté, and Sarit successfully seized power.
During Sarit’s dictatorship, the monarchy grew strong, and the relationship between the dictatorship and the monarchy was solid. After Sarit’s death, General Thammasat violently repressed a student uprising (1973), and the king forced him to resign.
The following years saw three attempted coups (1981, 1985, and 2006), and a political crisis in 1992, all successfully managed by the king. After 2006, the king became ill, suffering for ten years and dying in 2016, highly revered by Thai people.
The Chakri dynasty has shaped modern Thailand, and it is still possible to appreciate its heritage from the many temples around the country and especially from the magnificent Royal Palace in Bangkok. Visit Thailand with Asia Highlights and rely on our knowledgeable staff to craft the ideal trip for you and your loved ones.
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