Sunday, June 14, 2009


Bangkok rebuilt in the spirit of Ayutthaya

In the early morning of April 6, 1782, the army led by Chao Phraya Chakri finally reached Thonburi after making its way back hastily from a campaign in Cambodia. By that time the civil war in the capital, which had lasted about four days, had already been brought under control. His followers and other Officers of the State rushed out to welcome him with great expectations. There was no question at that moment that the 46-year-old Chao Phraya Chakri would emerge as the next king.
King Taksin, or King Thonburi, was brought over before the Pavilion of the Jury for a summary trial. He had already come to terms with his fate. The following day he would be executed. After almost 15 years, the Thonburi Kingdom was coming to an end.
Through his military prowess and charisma, King Taksin, generally known as Phra Chao Tak, took advantage of the political vacuum after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767 by moving further south to found Thonburi as a new capital. It was impossible to resurrect Ayutthaya, which was ransacked by the Burmese. The disintegration of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which lasted 414 years, allowed other states to declare independence.
King Taksin, who was half Chinese, proclaimed himself as a new king, before moving on, with the help of the two brothers - Chao Phraya Chakri and Chao Phraya Surasee - to subdue other rival kings. Eventually, King Taksin succeeded in consolidating his political and military power.
Between 1767 and 1782, Thonburi emerged as an ultimate power centre, but the regime was weak from within because it revolved singularly around King Thonburi. In the strictest sense, it was "tribal politics" that guided this kingdom. Historians, Dr Nidhi Eosriwongse of Chiang Mai University in particular, look upon King Thonburi as an ad hoc king, who came to power through special circumstances and by way of his exceptional leadership qualities.
King Thonburi was not part of the old establishment of Ayutthaya. Although King Thonburi did look back at Ayutthaya as a source of his inspiration for the new capital, he failed to institutionalise his power. Most of the affairs of the state were conducted through personal connections.
In his waning years, he became involved more in religion and believed that he had attained "enlightenment''.
Yet that was a sign of his inability to maintain his power as he began to lose his grip on his kingdom. Chao Phraya Chakri represented the Ayutthaya establishment. Born in 1737 as a commoner called Thongduang, he came from a noble family, which could trace its ancestors to Chao Phya Kosa (Pan). Chao Phya Kosa led a diplomatic mission to visit the court of King Louis XIV during the reign of King Narai.
Thongduang's father was Phra Pinitaksorn, who was a Royal Secretariat. His work was to draft royal letters and communications for northern regions.
Through family connections and a broad network of friends and noblemen, Chao Phraya Chakri and his brother Chao Phraya Surasee, who was five years younger, were able to build up their power base to represent the old Ayutthaya establishment.
Siamese noblemen and state officers all flocked to join his circle. They saw in Chao Phraya Chakri a leader who would revive the glory of the old order. However, there was no record to show that he worked in royal service during the Ayutthaya period.
After the fall of Ayutthaya, Thongduang resided with his father-in-law, who established one of the richest families in Ratchaburi. His wife, mother of King Rama II, was born in Amphawa, Samut Songkhram.
In 1768, one year after the fall of Ayutthaya, Thongduang, upon the persuasion of his brother Boonma, joined the service of King Taksin. Boonma rose quickly through the ranks and gained prestige, achieving the title of Chao Phraya Surasee. They fought side by side in tireless military campaigns to support King Taksin.
Thongduang received the first appointment under King Taksin as Phra Rajvarin. His brother served as Mahamontri. Phra Rajvarin held a sakdina title, or land ownership right, of only 1,600 rai, compared with 2,000 rai for his brother.
He proceeded rather slowly in his professional advancement compared with Chao Phraya Surasee. From Phra Rajvarin, he was promoted by King Thonburi to become Aphaironnarit. Between 1770 and 1774-1775, he rose further, becoming Phraya Yommaraj before assuming the title of Chakri.
His brother became Chao Phraya Surasee in 1771, but it was not until 1777 that he received the royal title of Phraya Chakri. Three years later in 1780, he was Chao Phraya Chakri.
At that point, Chao Phraya Chakri became the power centre with far many more followers than King Taksin.
In early 1782 he was in Cambodia to suppress a riot there. He rushed back to the capital upon learning of the civil war there, which could have been a plot.
An army led by one of King Thonburi's sons was being held back by Chao Phraya Surasee's army. Phraya Chakri's nephew, Phraya Suriya Aphai, who ruled in Nakhon Rachasima, proceeded first to Thonburi with the aim of taking control of the capital.
The riot saw a brief takeover of Thonburi by the unruly Phraya San, who took advantage of the turmoil to exert his power. He placed King Thonburi under custody, forced him to become a monk and later tried to rally for his support to fight against Phraya Suriya Aphai.
However King Thonburi could read the situation clearly. He realised that when the army of Chao Phraya Chakri arrived, everything would be over. It was indeed over well before Chao Phraya Chakri made his presence felt at the capital on April 6, 1782.
He would become the new king, to be known later as Rama I or King Yodfa, and establish the new capital on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. The old Ayutthaya order would be reborn under the new Chakri Dynasty.

Bangkok:legacy of Rama I

The legacy of King Rama I, or King Yodfa (reigned 1782-1809) lives on 220 years after he founded Bangkok as the majestic capital of the Siamese. It was on April 21st, 1782 - 15 days after he ascended the throne - that the king commissioned the erection of the City Pillar as a symbol of the foundation and future growth and prosperity of the City of Angels.
On that warm day, four monks presided over a Brahmin rite, delivering a special prayer called nakharathan somphoch. It was the highlight of a grandiose celebration for the king, the Royal family and the new capital, which was blessed with water surrounding a mountain. King Rama I, then 46 years old, was a devout Buddhist, who had a preference for strict Buddhist rituals.
He was inclined to restore the grandeur of Ayutthaya, its spirit and tradition.
His most immediate task after ascending the throne as the king and founder of the Chakri Dynasty was to pick a more suitable location for the Siamese capital. In his opinion Thon Buri, founded by King Taksin and capital for only 15 years, was not an appropriate location since it was located on the west bank of the Chao Phya River, making it an easy target for an enemy attack.
Opposite the old palace of Thon Buri, across the Chao Phya on the river's east bank, was a little town called Bangkok. Its location was ideal according to ancient Thai beliefs. The name Bangkok means "village of wild plums" (bang "village", kok "wild plum").
During the reign of King Narai the Great of the late Ayutthaya period, Bangkok had been a flourishing trade centre.
The site King Rama I chose to house the Royal Palace was at that time a Chinatown, a community of Chinese merchants. With appropriate compensation, the merchants were asked to move to Sampheng to make way for the Royal Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
In June 1782, after settling this business, the king underwent a provisional coronation to take possession of the throne. January 1, 1783 saw the king hold a meeting with noblemen, knowledgeable officials and Buddhist monks to consult old treaties and protocols so that they could come up with a full coronation manual and prepare for the regalia and utensils.
King Taksin, who built Thon Buri as the new capital in 1768, a year after the fall of Ayutthaya, did not go through a full or proper coronation. King Rama I's supporters did not view King Taksin as part of the old Ayutthaya establishment. King Taksin failed to institutionalise his monarchy to give it an enduring legitimacy.
It was not until 1785 that King Rama I underwent a grand coronation to fully proclaim the legitimacy of the new Chakri Dynasty. Chakri was the king's royal title, bestowed upon him by King Taksin during the time he served under the half-Chinese king.
He rose to the highest military rank as Chao Phraya Chakri and represented the old Ayutthaya establishment.
On the Bangkok side of the Rama I Bridge stands a statue of King Rama I, erected to honour him as the founder of Bangkok.
Sitting firmly on his throne, Rama I is dressed in the ancient costume of a Siamese King. His square, solemn face gives him an air of majestic authority. Almost unconsciously, Rama I faces the east of Bangkok, turning his back to Thon Buri - or to King Taksin, whose statue stands a few kilometres away on the Thon Buri side at Wongwien Yai.
King Taksin looks like an ancient king on horseback. The way he holds his sword and the readiness of his horse show that he is about to enter yet another battle to consolidate Thon Buri as the new capital of Siam.
It was not until the reign of Rama VII (1925-1934) that the Rama I Bridge was built to improve the traffic flow between the two capitals, which earlier relied on rowing boats across the Chao Phya.
Yet at its two busiest times of day the bridge appears to serve as a one-way street, as people from Thon Buri flock to work in Bangkok in the morning, then cross it again to go home in the evening.
For about 200 years Thailand had twin cities or twin capitals, Krung Bangkok and Krung Thon Buri, psychologically and physically separated by the great Chao Phya River.
It was not until 1975 that Thon Buri was merged into greater Bangkok. The entire area is now called Krungthep Mahanakhon or Metropolitan Bangkok.
King Rama I's Bangkok, the City of Angels, today clusters around Old Bangkok on the Rattanakosin Island. It was the genesis of the new capital, which while young in years is the envy of countries the world over for its rich culture, spectacular temples and palaces and its charm. Bangkok rebuilt in the spirit of Ayutthaya.


Vientiane - Almost 500 years after his demise, King Chaichetthathiraj I still casts his long shadow over Vientiane.
Wherever you go in the city, you'll encounter the legacies he left behind from his Lan Chang Kingdom.
For it is this great king who founded Vientiane in 1559, on the bank of the Mekong River, as the new capital of the Kingdom of One Million Elephants.
King Chaichetthathiraj was a contemporary of King Chakkrapat of Ayudhya and of Phra Maha Thammaraja, who was the father of King Naresuan the Great.
He moved the capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in order to guard his kingdom against a threat from the Burmese, who had formed an alliance with Lanna or Chiang Mai.
Luang Prabang was geographically too close to Lanna to defend itself from enemies.
The king, whose mother was a Lanna princess, used to rule over Lanna during the time that Lanna and Luang Prabang were very close to each other as twin kingdoms.
Luang Prabang is the Old Capital of Laos, in the same way that Ayudhya is the Old Capital of Siam.
But in Vientiane, King Chaichetthathiraj built numerous temples, including Ho Phra Kaew to house the Emerald Buddha, which he had brought from Chiang Mai.
Ho Phra Kaew was part of the royal compound.
King Chaichetthathiraj's statue, erected in front of the Phra That Luang, or the Crystal Glass Stupa, stands as a testimony to his greatness as the founder of Vientiane.
Dressed in ancient royal robes, he sits on his throne with his back straight, holding a long sword on his lap.
It looks as if he were still presiding over his capital.
The Phra That Luang that he renovated has now become a national symbol of Laos, a landmark that reflects the country's historical splendour and great religious tradition.
The statue of King Chaichetthathiraj reminds you of a similar one of King Yodfa at the King Rama I Bridge.
Both statues are posed in the same sitting posture, in similar royal robes, giving out an aura of invincibility.
When King Yodfa founded Bangkok in 1772, Vientiane had already been around for 213 years.
The Thai people, in general, look upon Laos as a "younger brother" country.
In other words, Laos is Siam in miniature.
If you want to learn about Siam in its rudimentary form, you go to Laos, where time is frozen or moves slowly.
That is the accepted generalisation.
But if you travel around Vientiane, which has to be discovered by walking or by bicycling, you'll immediately sense the pride of being Lao everywhere.
To the Laotian people, Laos and Siam are two distinct separate identities.
And everything that is Siam is not be trusted.
Anti-Siamese sentiment is a recurring theme.
But this is not totally unexpected for a country that has been ravaged by its bigger, yet very unkind, brother, for centuries.
An article in the Vientiane Times, July 15-17, expressed a growing concern over the predomination of Thai music, which may poison the minds of Lao youth.
The local authorities have mandated that night clubs should play at least 70 per cent Lao music.
"But when we look at the reality, some night clubs are still ignoring the regulations since they play most of their music from across the Mekong River, especially those venues that draw many young people.
These night clubs hardly ever play Lao music," the article said.
Even the latest Laos Magazine (July-September) cannot help expressing its cynicism toward big brother Thailand for going astray.
One of the articles in this magazine features Xishungbanna (Jinghong), in South China, as a new destination for Lao Airlines.
"Thai people often assume that the roots of their past lie in Xishungbanna," the article claims.

"Though partially true, this belief may be the result of Thailand doing a bit too much following behind the modern world.
In trying to modernise so quickly, Thai people instantly forget their own past.
Thus, when they have time to rest and think, they become curious about their origins.
This reflection leads inevitably to Xishuangbanna, even though the full heritage of Thai people may lie elsewhere.
" Indeed, the genesis of Bangkok can be reluctantly traced back to Vientiane.
During the Thonburi period, Chao Phya Chakri, later on King Rama I, and his younger brother, Chao Phya Surasi, led a Siamese army to subdue Vientiane.
After ravaging the city, Chao Phaya Chakri brought the Emerald Buddha back to Thonburi.
(He also took a beautiful Lao girl as one of his minor wives.
) A signboard in the Ho Phra Kaew in Vientiane articulates a long-unfulfilled yearning for the Emerald Buddha.

It says in awkward English: "Now the Emerald Buddha was in the foreign abroad since 1779 AD.

" Gratified, King Taksin of Thonburi had the Emerald Buddha housed in Wat Chaeng, now generally known as the Temple of the Dawn.

Later on when Chao Phaya Chakri became King Rama I of the Chakri Dynasty, he moved the capital from Thonburi to Bangkok.

Although King Rama I drew most of his inspiration from Ayudhya to recreate the Old Capital in Bangkok, he could not help but model his Royal Palace after Ho Phra Kaew of Vientiane.

Thus, he had Wat Phrakaew, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, built within the Royal Palace to house the Emerald Buddha.

The Emerald Buddha would provide the spiritual and religious gravity of his reign in the new capital in the same way that it foreshadowed the reign of King Chaichetthathiraj.

Laos may be Siam in reductive form, but in this lurks the genesis of Bangkok.

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