Category Archives: History of Thailand

The Ban Song Khan Catholic Massacre Monument

Darkest Isan (where decent thais fear to tread), Part Seven

If I had a baht for every time, back home and in the far east, I’ve been told or read how Buddhism is different, it’s a religion of tolerance and enlightenment, I’d almost have the daily wage of a red shirt by now. The Shrine of the Seven Martyrs show that at times Buddhism is more than capable of lining up alongside its Abrahamic counterparts in the prejudice, fanaticism and murder department.

The small village of Ban Song Khan lies in the far north of Mukdahan Province near the Nakhon Phanom Border, better described as the middle of bloody nowhere, look Ray Mears would think twice about going there.  Deep in rice growing territory surrounded kilometres of paddy fields and scatterings small wooden villages, what made this tiny un-outstanding village different was at sometime in its history it had been visited by French missionaries from just across the river in Lao and many people in the area were Catholics.


In 1932 Thailand had a coup de tate and absolute monarchy ended. The coupers however fell out on how to run the country, and ultimately  the army seized control under a Mussolini admiring dictator. Thailand was a very devolved country of many cultures and languages with little sense of being a single people. The fascist government began to address this and using techniques that had worked for Mussolini in Italy, a program a centralisation and nationalism was initiated along with anti foreign propaganda. Though aimed mostly at Japanese and Chinese, all foreign ideas came under suspicion and one of these were the Catholic residents of  Ban Song Khan.

Xenophobia of foreign influences reached a height in 1940 as the imminent threat of Japanese invasion emerged and the government concerned with stamping out everything foreign tasked the police with the job of dealing with Ban Song Khan. The demand was simple; to show their loyalty the whole village was to convert from Catholicism to Buddhism immediately. To enforce this order police in September 1940  fell upon the village knocking on each door and firing their guns in the air and running the catholic priest out of town. Believing this shock to the system would be enough they departed. Anyone who had the misfortune of attending Catholic school such as I did will know just how dumb that last part is. Catholics just don’t see intimidation (they also don’t see reason, common sense or the other person’s point of view either, as a matter of fact) as a reason to back down.

Leaderless and frightened the villagers turned to a Philip Siphong who took on the role of headman and encouraged the villages to resist the demand. On the 16th of September he became the first of the Martyrs after receiving a letter inviting him to visit the local sheriff, as he was travelling through the forest; he was ambushed and murdered by the police.

Village leadership now fell on two nuns who ran the village convent Agnes Phila and Lucia Khambang. Police made more visits to the village firing guns in the air, but the villages would still not capitulate. On December the 25th Police Chief Lue of Songram visited the village personally meeting the nuns in the local church, where he quite categorically ordered them to convert to Buddhism or they would be killed. The nuns apparently refused on the spot and the next day he returned with a number of policemen. The police ordered the nuns and several children to the convent cemetery and lined them up in front of the gathered villagers. The line consisted of 3 nuns and 5 children, the father of one of the children interveined and was able to carry his daughter away despite protests. The rest were given a final offer by police Chief Lue at gunpoint to convert or die which they refused and the police opened fire. The 3 nuns and 3 of the children were killed, however a fourth child Sorn apparently covered in blood but not hit crawled out from under the bodies when the police had gone. She lived to the 1990’s  and retold the story frequently.

Eventually an investigation was called and Police Chief Lue found responsible and received transfer to another station as punishment.

Shrine of the Seven Martyrs

Done with typical Catholic hyperbole, the monument resides on the site of the now vanished Ban Song Khan or swamps it more like. I guess when the Catholic Church budgeted for it, they didn’t quite realise how cheap building is in this country, expecting a reasonable size statue they got a mini Mecca. Also the Catholic church doesn’t seem to understand the notion of overkill, as every inch of the postmodern glass church at the heart of the monument is filled by images, references, mock tombs and stories of the martyrs. It’s surrounded by a complex which then tells the story in stone murual. Beside the monument is the massive convent and school site again knee deep in statues, monuments graves and references to the martyrs.

I guess the moral of the story is if you’re a dictator of a backward third world country with low labour and building material costs, try to avoid massacres at small insignificant catholic convents, otherwise the Catholic Church will go completely mental and build a humungous monument on a pyramidic scale to embarrass you about to for centuries to come. But if this doesn’t discourage you from doing it, make sure you do it in the middle of bloody nowhere where even catholic overkill of this proportion can go unnoticed.

The place is well worth a visit. Not only for the stunning scenary around but just for the shock of finding something on this scale built in such an out the way place and the fact you know if this happened in the UK  it would simply get a plaque on the wall.

The monument got me thinking, if you build something on this scale for just 7 people who were murdered for their Catholic beliefs by the police. How big must the monument for many who were murdered by the police for their Communist beliefs? I guess Isan better start saving.

Exploring Phra Samut Chedi

One of the most important temples in Samut Prakan is Phra Samut Chedi. It is not only the symbol of the province but is also the site for the longest running temple fair in Thailand. According to the organizers, we are now in the 182nd year. The whole city comes to a standstill during the fair for twelve days and nights. During the evening, both main roads through the town are closed. In Thai, the alternative name for the temple is “Chedi Klang Nam”. This means the pagoda in the middle of the river. This is because originally the temple was built on a small artificial island in the middle of the Chao Phraya River. Over one hundred years ago, when foreigners arrived in Thailand by ship, the first thing that they saw was this giant white pagoda on an island in the middle of the river.

Over the years, the course of the river changed a little and the gap between the island and the West Bank started to silt up. In 1933, in an attempt to make it into an island again, they dug an 8 meter wide ditch around the temple. However, it was a losing battle. In 1940, the Chao Phraya River was dredged in order to allow big ships up to the port in Bangkok. By the 1950’s, Phra Samut Chedi was no longer on an island. It is a shame in many ways as it lost much of its charm. Back then the only way to go there was by boat. Even the candle light procession around the temple had to be done in a boat. In the above picture you can see where they used to tie up their boats. It used to be water to the right of this picture.

The idea of building this temple belongs to King Rama II. Back in 1822 he had noticed a sandbank in the Chao Phraya River and thought it would be good to build a pagoda there. Unfortunately he died before the work could be started. However, his son, King Rama III, started construction of the island and the temple on October 30th, 1827. It was completed seven months later. The shape was different to the one we have now. Instead of being a smooth bell-like structure, it had 12 notches. It was also only 20 meters high. Encased in the pagoda were some relics of the Buddha but these were later stolen. The present pagoda was built by King Rama IV. He had the new bell-shaped pagoda built around the old one and increased the height to 39 meters. He also brought twelve Buddha relics from the Grand Palace to be enshrined here. He wanted to make this an important landmark for when people entered Thailand.

In 1862, Anna Leonowens wrote the following about her first view of Phra Samut Chedi: On an island there “is perhaps the most unique and graceful object of architecture in Siam; shining like a jewel on the broad bosom of the river, fantastic and gilded, flashing back the glory of the sun, and duplicated in shifting shadows in the limpid waters below.. Visiting this island some years later, I found that this temple, like all other pyramidal structures in this part of the world, consist of solid masonry of brick and mortar. The bricks made here are remarkable, being fully eight inches long and nearly four broad, and of fine grain. There are cornices on all sides, with steps to ascend to the top, where a long inscription proclaims the name, rank and virtues of the founder, with dates of the commencement of the island and the shrine. The whole of the space, extending to the low stone breakwater that surrounds the island, is paved with the same kind of brick, and encloses, in addition to Phra Chedi, a smaller temple with a brass image of the sitting Buddha. It also affords accommodation to the numerous retinue of princes, nobles, retainers, and pages who attend the king in his annual visits to the temple, to worship, and make votive offerings and donations to the priests.”

A tradition that started back then was the annual worship festival for the temple. In those days this mainly took place on the water. They had shadow puppet shows and Ramakien plays. Another tradition that was started was the wrapping of the sacred red cloth around the 30 meter high pagoda. Originally, they got prisoners from the local jails to climb to the top to wrap the cloth around the pagoda. But, this was a dangerous job and probably after a few accidents they refused to climb to the top. They wouldn’t go even if they were threatened. However, a few members of the Rungjaeng family stepped up and offered to climb to the top. Their bravery impressed the local officials. From that time onwards, only members of the Rungjaeng family are allowed to do this job at the start of the Temple Fair every year. It is indeed a dangerous job as they have no harnesses when they climb a bamboo ladder to the top and then walk along ledges to wrap the cloth.

On our Samut Prakan Forums you can see pictures of this ceremony as well as pictures of the Temple Fair that is going on at the moment until 20th October 2009.

Aerial Views of Old Bangkok

I like looking at old photos of Bangkok. It is interesting to see how some things have changed. While others things are much the same. These are some interesting aerial photos of Bangkok from Life magazine taken by Dmitri Kessel in 1950. The first one is the Marble Temple.

The next one is looking down towards the Democracy Monument. Khao San Road is off to the left. Notice a lack of traffic which is very strange.

This next photo of Bangkok from the air looks very much like Wong Wian Yai on the Thonburi side. This is a very busy roundabout. Strange again to see it so quiet.

I am not sure about these last two photos. It is obviously a major canal. This one above has a lot of boat traffic. Please post a comment if you can help identify these pictures. Over at, I recently posted some old pictures of a Traffic Jam in 1950’s Bangkok.

Pictures of Thai Royal Family

The pictures on this page were taken by John Dominis in 1960 for Life Magazine. They were taken on the birthday of Princess Ubolratana. The captions are from Life magazine

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej (L) and Queen Sirikit (3R) giving alms w. their children (L-R) Vajiralongkorn, Sirindhorn, Chulabkorn and Ubolratana on the morning of Ubolratana’s birthday.

Thailand’s Queen Sirikit (L) leading her daughter Princess Ubolratana (C) through ritual of Sai Bat, giving alms to Buddhist priests done on one’s birthday; at Chitralada Palace. (The other girl is prob. daughter Chulabkorn).

Thailand’s Princess Ubolratana (2L) receiving presents from palace employees on her birthday as her mother, Queen Sirikit (L) looks on.

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej (2L) and Queen Sirikit (L) taking pictures of their children Ubolratana (C), Chulabkorn (in sisters arms) and Vajiralongkorn on palace grounds.

/Thailand’s Queen Sirikit (R back to camera) speaking w. guests at birthday party for her daughter Ubolratana.

Old Photos of Bangkok

These are some old photos of Bangkok that were taken by Dmitri Kessel in 1950 for Life Magazine. I think it is always nice to look at pictures of familiar places from the past. It is interesting to see how some things have changed while others are much the same.