SAMUT SONGKHRAM - Travellers from Bangkok heading toward the south for a weekend vacation in Cha-Am or Hua Hin mostly drive through Samut Songkhram as if it were a forgotten land. But this tiny province, apart from its famous pomelo, linchee and the beautiful Maeklong River, is rich in history. It is here that all the royal descendants of the Chakri Dynasty claim their roots.
In particular, it is the birthplace King Rama II, or King Lertla (1809-1824). The Second Reign is widely seen by historians as an interlude between the founding of the capital in 1782 by his father, King Rama I (1782-1809) and the construction of Bangkok during the reign of King Rama III (1824-1851). King Lertla's accession to the throne, however, symbolised the institutionalisation of the monarchy and the Chakri Dynasty that would lay the foundation for the future.
He also strengthened his political power through formalisation of government organs and modes of doing business. Still, King Lertla is remembered more as an artist than as a ruler.
John Crawfurd, who had an audience with the King, observed in his writing: "The country prospered under his administration, that he was rarely guilty of acts of atrocity, and that upon the whole he was admitted to be one of the mildest sovereigns that had ruled Siam."
The King could spend several hours writing poetry among his courtiers and his choice of company. Sunthorn Phu, Siam's greatest poet in the Rattanakosin period, found his career reaching its height during the Second Reign. There was a Royal pavilion built on the Chao Phya River where the King composed his Ramakien, Khun Chang Khun Phan, Sang Thong and others.
Fortunately, he had an able son in Prince Jesadabodin, who mostly looked after the affairs of state on his behalf. The prince would later become King Rama III. The Second Reign was blessed with a period of relative peace. That gave King Rama II the advantage to concentrate on his artistic pursuits so that his reign came to be known as the Golden Age of the Thai Literature.
From Phetchakasem Road, if you make a turn into the heart of downtown Samut Songkram, you'll immediately have the impression that it is rather a backward town.
There is only one main business street, which cuts through the town in snake-like curves.
With the Maeklong River in the backdrop, the town is frugal, being blessed with a small bus station, a fresh market and an array of shop houses. The city planning is awful.
Yet a few kilometres away from the town lies serene Amphoe Amphawa. Inside Wat Amphawanjetiyaram stands a statue of King Lertla, dressed in a full Royal regalia with a sword in his left hand.
The house he used to live is no longer there. A small temple structure is now built on it.
It is in these pleasant surroundings that King Lertla, born on February 26, 1768, grew up. His mother was called Nak, later to be elevated to her full title as Queen Amarin. His father, Thongduang, entered the Royal service in Rachaburi, getting married to Nak and moving to live with her family in Amphawa.
Thongduang would later join the service of King Thonburi, rise quickly in titles and power and eventually establish himself as King Rama I of the Chakri Dynasty. King Lertla frequently accompanied his father during military campaigns.
When King Rama I founded Bangkok, he was elevated to become Prince Itsarasunthorn. He settled in the old palace of King Taksin in Thonburi.
Upon the death of Krom Phrarajawang Bovornmaha Surasinghanart, Palace of the Front, the prince was promoted to the title of an Upparat.
He was an apparent heir to the throne.
Apart from his numerous consorts, King Lertla married his cousin, Boonrod, who was a daughter of his father's sister.
She would bear him two future kings - King Mongkut (1851-1868) and King Pinkhlao, or Palace of the Front.
It is through King Lertla that the descendants of the Chakri Dynasty really proliferated, culminating in the Fifth Reign of King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910).
Adjacent to Wat Amphawa is the King Rama II Memorial Park, built in original Central Thai-style architecture about a decade ago.
A walk in this park is quite pleasant, with all the trees and flowers that were the king's favourites.
You may want to drink coconut juice and buy some local gifts from the small shops in front of the park.
As you leave the town, you really want to come back, again and again to search for the past and feel the air, the earth and the river that gave birth to the Chakri Dynasty.