Daily Archives: September 21, 2005

The Daily Life of a Thai King

The following extract comes from a remarkable book called “A King of Siam Speaks” by M.R. Seni Pramoj and M.R. Kukrit Pramoj. It contains many letters written by King Rama IV. Some of which he wrote himself in English. This king is known throughout the World as King Mongkut. He was made famous by the Broadway musical “The King and I”.

When King Mongkut left the priesthood to take up the duties of kingship, he had to resume a life which he had once forsaken. It was a contrast in extremes, for the King went straight from his monastic cell to the Inner Palace or the Harem. The once celibate priest was now required to have as many wives and children as possible, for such practice was then regarded as being necessary for the honour and dignity of the Sovereign. During 17 years on the throne, Mongkut had 82 children. This, after 26 years spent in the monastery, was no mean feat.

The Inner Palace where the King took up residence was a veritable city of women, wherein no other males above the age of eleven were allowed, except on very special occasions when they were given permission to enter, accompanied by a number of muscular amazons who guarded the palace. In this palace lived the princesses of the blood, the ladies of the harem, and all their slaves and attendants. The administration of this city was in the hands of highranking lady officials of lower ranks, women who performed the duties of clerks and treasurers together with members of the guard of the amazons and women menials. The Siamese harem was different from other oriental harems in one respect: no eunuch had ever been known to be in employment. New members were given to the King or to the princesses by willing parents or relatives; others came of their own accord with the hope for royal favour or employment inside the palace. Young girls from noble and rich families were usually sent to the palace for a duration of time before they became marriageable, for the palace was the only place where they could be properly educated and obtain all the accomplishments and polish that were required of Siamese ladies of high birth.

King Rama IV and his son Prince Chulalongkorn (Rama V)

All these women were called “Nang Nai” or ladies of the Inner Palace, but only the royal wives and concubines and princesses of the blood were regarded as “Nang Harm” or the forbidden ladies. These latter were not allowed to marry except by the King’s special permission, which was rarely granted. They were not allowed to be looked upon by any other male with the exception of the King himself. It is curious to note that nowhere else in the kingdom was the purdah practised but only inside the Royal Court and at the court of the Second King or the Heir to the Throne. King Mongkut was the first Siamese monarch to break this age-old custom by issuing a proclamation permitting those ladies to resign, though it must be said that the characters he gave to those who did actually resign were not as brilliant as they might have been.

Although the King of Siam held the Supreme Power in the Kingdom in which his commands were sacred and must be obeyed, his daily life inside the palace had to follow a routine prescribed by the palatine laws which had been handed down from the remote past. The daily routine of the King’s life according to the law was as follows:

7 a.m. The King rose from bed.
8 a.m. He partook of a light repast consisting of rice gruel
9 a.m. He gave audience to the officers of the Royal Guards
10 a.m. He took his morning meal and retired again to bed
11 a.m. The ladies of the palace attended him
1 p.m. He went out on an excursion
2 p.m. He gave audience to his children and members of the Royal family
3 p.m. He presided over a council of his ministers and the high officers of the Realm and gave his decisions on affairs of state.
4 p.m. He went on an excursion
5 p.m. He went to the Royal Chapel
6 p.m. He decided on the affairs of the Palace
7 p.m. He studied the Art of War
8 p.m. He studied Politics
9 p.m. A meal was served to the King
10 p.m. He conferred with astrologers and pundits and discussed with them Religion and Philosophy
midnight Musicians and singers were brought before the King
1 a.m. Storytellers were brought before the King
2 or 3 a.m. The King retired to bed

This then was roughly the daily routine of private life which King Mongkut had to follow. It was known, however, that he preferred the company of his ministers to that of astrologers and pundits at night, when he would discuss official business with them. Instead of music and minstrelsy at midnight the King usually called for his secretary, pen and paper, whereby he would continue with his writing far into the next morning. With such a life and responsibilities, with so vast a conglomeration of women surrounding him, not counting the large number of his own children, and in spite of the complete lack of privacy in all things, King Mongkut succeeded, where men of lower calibre would have failed, in establishing some sort of intimate family feelings between himself and his numerous wives and children. Although his wives were never allowed to forget that he was their Supreme Lord of Life, they very often caught glimpses of his true love and tenderness. The letters he wrote to some of his wives were full of as much affection and kindness as any ordinary man could feel towards those dear and near to him.

Thaification, a double-edged sword

No doubt many of you are aware of the escalating troubles in the south. News analysts talk about the details of the violence and ponder about possible causes, but strangely no-one looked into how Thailand has dealt with such fringe groups in the past. So I set out to find this out by myself.

What I found is quite interesting. I stumbled upon a strange term called “Thaification”, a process in which groups on the fringe of Thai society become more similar to the mainstream Thai culture.

Did you know that the Thai language we learn, the Thai customs we try to follow, most of the food and music we call “Thai”, represent only Central Thailand? Places like the Northeast, the southern provinces, the sea gypsies, hilltribes of the North, and several other subgroups have their own way of life, sometimes very different from that of the mainstream Thai way.

This makes up Thailand’s cultural and linguistic diversity, a treasure with a value that cannot be measured in money.

Miss. Komalwan- My Thai Teacher

Miss Komalwan taught us Thai language, in addition to her assigned segment of the management course. While teaching Thai, she took care to see that all the students enjoyed the classes. In order to prevent a pupil from switching off, she would ask questions very frequently. Once in a class I was asked to come up with a Thai word. Since I had to respond quickly, I came up with the word ‘Sanuk‘. In retrospect, I feel I should have come up with a full sentence.

While teaching a language, a good teacher often takes recourse to the cultural and historical context of the language. Miss. Komalwan had a deep understanding of Thai culture and history. She once presented us new archaeological findings indicating that in Thailand, very ancient human settlements had been flourishing.

She had also been our friend, philosopher and guide. Often in our trips outside, she would accompany us and as is normal with a lady, she would take care to see that we all ate well. I do not know what Komalwan means in Thai, but to me it seems that she was as perfect as a lotus.

On a cultural evening, she organised a food competition in which participants from Japan, South Korea,China, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Srilanka participated. She had cooked a very large container of fish with lots of gravy. After so many years, I still remember the smell of lemon grass and Kafir Lime leaves.