THAI MONARCHY: KING, CUSTOMS, CONSTITUTION, SYMBOLS AND CEREMONIES

THAI MONARCHY

The Thai King and the members of the Royal Family are deeply revered by the Thai people for traditional and religious reasons and for the Royal Family’s passionate commitment to the welfare of Thailand. Thailand had been ruled outright by kings of various realms since the thirteenth century; it was not until 1932 that Thailand became a constitutional monarchy.

The current King of Thailand, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) is the ninth Thai king from the House of Chakri, which has ruled Thailand since the founding of Bangkok by King Phutthayotfa Chulalok (Rama I) in 1782. H.M. King Bhumibol was born in the United States while his father, who did not serve as King of Thailand, was attending Harvard University. H.M. Bhumibol ascended the throne as King of Thailand in 1946 following the death of his brother and has since attained the distinction of being the world’s longest reigning monarch and the longest reigning Thai King in Thailand’s history.

The royal family are deeply revered by all Thais and treated with the deepest respect. There is special polite language that commoners are supposed to use when talking about the royal family. The royal language is so elaborate that a royal communique announcing that Queen Sirikit suffered a broken ankle had to translated so ordinary Thais could understand it.♦

Thai King

While the King of Thailand has little direct power, under the constitution King Bhumibol is a symbol of national identity and unity; indeed, the Thai King commands enormous popular respect and moral authority, both of which he has leveraged on a few rare occasions to resolve political crises that have threatened national stability. In more recent years however, he has maintained a more hands-off approach, urging Thais to learn to resolve their differences in an amicable way for the good of their country.

The Thai king’s private life is mostly hidden from public view. He has traditionally been surrounded by sycophants and servants, including ones whose duty it was to follow members of the royal family around with the their betel nut boxes.

The Thai constitution states that the king is “enthroned in a position of revered worship” and is not to be exposed “to any sort of accusation or action.” A Thai school textbook reads: “All our kings have promoted the prosperity of the realm, have been the leaders in defending and protecting the country, fighting the country’s enemies while caring for the peacefulness and happiness of the population who so inherited the realm in which we live. This is why all Thais should remind themselves of the superior goodness of the Thai king.”

Thailand’s Constitutional Monarchy and Succession

The Thailand government is a constitutional monarchy similar to that of the United Kingdom, in which a Prime Minister serves as head of a parliamentary government and a hereditary Thai king functions as head of state. This form of government has been in place in Thailand since 1932 following nearly 700 years of outright rule by various lines of Thai kings. The widely revered Thai King serves as spiritual and moral leader of the country as well as head of state, but wields no outright political authority. King Bhumibol has been the constitutional monarch and head of state since June 9, 1946. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

The Constitution stipulates that the king is "enthroned in a position of revered worship" and is not to be exposed "to any sort of accusation or action." As ceremonial head of state, the monarch is endowed with a formal power of assent and appointment, is above partisan affairs, and does not involve himself in the decision-making process of the government. King Bhumibol Adulyadej remains the nation's most respected figure because he was popularly perceived to be the embodiment of religion, culture, and history. He ensured political stability and unity by lending legitimacy to important government actions and, in potentially destabilizing situations, as during the abortive coups in 1981 and 1985, the bloody demonstrations in 1992 and the coup in 2006 by discreetly signaling his support of the incumbent government. [Library of Congress]

The monarchy is hereditary and based on the Palace Law of Succession enacted in 1924, which allows the king to appoint his heir. If he has failed to do so, the Privy Council nominates an heir for National Assembly consideration. The heir suggested by the Privy Council may be a prince or princess.

In Thailand, the eldest son of the king automatically succeeds when the king dies. Women can ascend to the throne. The mode of succession is set forth in the Palace Law on Succession. In the absence of a crown prince, or if the crown prince declines succession, a princess can succeed, subject to parliamentary approval. When the throne becomes vacant, an heir is appointed by the Privy Council. Until the heir formally ascends the throne, the president of the Privy Council acts as regent. Prince Vajiralongkorn, the only son of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, was designated as heir on December 28, 1972, at the age of twenty.

Worship and Reverence Towards the Thai King

The Thai king is regarded by the Thai people as god-like and semi-divine. The most common expression for referring to the king in Thailand is Prachao Yu Hua—“Lord above your head.” In the old days Thais were too awed by the king to even look at him. Instead they placed pieces of cloth on the ground for him to walk on and then placed the cloth pieces on altars of their homes.

The birthdays of the King and Queen are also celebrated as Fathers Day and Mothers Day. At these times, huge portraits and photos of them spring up all over Thailand in front of large buildings and at traffic intersections, and newspapers and websites are full of messages of congratulations.

King Mongkut (Rama IV, ruled 1851-68) greatly reformed the monarchy and got rid of many actions that could be described as monrach worshipping. Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “He attempted to demythologise Thai religion by aligning Buddhist cosmology with modern science, and founded the Thammayut monastic sect, based on the strict discipline he had followed as a monk... Mongkut was the first monarch to show his face to Thai commoners in public.”

Chulalongkorn (Rama V, ruled 1868–1910) got rid of public prostrations and reformed rules that made the touching of a royal family member by a commoner and crime punishable by death. Presumably one of the reasons he did this was a tragedy that befell his family. Queen Sunanda Kumariratana, eldest daughter of King Mongkut (Rama IV), was a much loved wife and first queen of King Chulalongkorn. Unfortunately, she died at just 19 years of age, while pregnant, from drowning. The Queen was on her way to Bang Pa-in Summer Palace, on the Chao Praya River, when her boat sank. The old Siamese customs that prevented anyone from touching the queen except for the king made it impossible to save the young queen. Her only daughter, Princess Karnabhorn Bejraratana (nearly 2 years old), died with her.

According to a translation of laws regarding the rescue of a royal person in the Siamese State Ceremonies by H.G. Quaritch-Wales: “If a boat founders, the boatmen must swim away; if they remain near the boat they are to be executed. If the boat founders and the royal person falls into the water and is about to drown, let the boatmen stretch out the signal-spear and throw the coconuts so that he may grasp them if he can. If he cannot, they may let him seize the signal-spear. If they lay hold of him to rescue him, they are to be executed. He who throws the coconuts is to be rewarded with forty ticals of silver and one gold basin. If the barge sinks and someone else sees the coconuts thrown and goes to save rhe royal person, the punishment is double and all his family is to be exterminated. If the barge founders and someone throws the coconuts so that they float towards the shore [away from the royal person], his throat is to be cut and his home confiscated.

Dhevaraja (Dive King) Concept

The belief that the Thai kings semi-divine is rooted is three beliefs: 1) Kings are regarded as; a bodhisattva (a reincarnation of Lord Buddha); 2) the kings are considered the reincarnation of God Vishnu who came down to ease sufferings, according to the Hinduism; and 3) the kings were the protectors who took good care of their subjects and practised the 10 royal virtues. The god-like status of the Thai king is often compared to fatherly love. For this, the kings were called Phrachao Yoohua.

Dhevaraja (the divine king) and god-king may have similarities but they came from different sources. God-king (Summuttidhev) or the reincarnation of god originates from Mahayana Buddhism while Dhevaraja is from Hinduism. The Mahayana school regards kings as Phrachao Jakkapat [as described in the Mahachompoo Bodi Sutra] and eventually the divine beings. In the Theravada school, the divinity of kings described as Dharmikarat or Phraya Jakkawatdiraj or Phraya Jak is mentioned in the Trai-Bhumi Praruang scripture. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand , a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University]

The concept of the divine king can be traced back to the Buddhist culture of Mon people. During the Sukhothai period, kings were treated the same way as those in the Mon culture. These kings, who strictly followed the Phra Dhammasat text, were required to comply with the 10 royal virtues and uphold Buddha’s principles of Sangahavatthu and Brahmvihan (these virtues believed to help bring social harmony to the country). Even though it seems kings in the modern time simply follow the royal court practice, but by uttering “I shall rule by righteousness,'' they are to observe dharma in Dharmasatra text.

Such royal practice automatically makes them a divine being and it becomes a tradition that Thai kings advocate Buddhism. The kings’ divinity, either in the Mahayana school or the Theravada school, is often shown in their royal titles such as Phra Maha Dharmaraja and Phra Maha Jakkapat and Phrachao Songdharm. Another way to recognise the kings' divine being is to compare them with the Lord Buddha. In Ayutthaya kingdom, there existed a tradition, which gave the title of ``Phra Buddhachao Luang,'' to the late kings. This was mentioned in the book, 15 Boromratchaphisek (Coronation) composed by Prince Krommuen Pittayalap Pruethiyakorn, which referred to ``Somdej Norbuddhangkoor'' as the son of the king, while Phra Buddhachaoyuhua as the kings.

Hindusim and the Dhevaraja (Divine King Concept)

Another idea of the divine king or Dhevaraja comes from Hinduism, which regard the king's status as that of Indra God, a great god who resides in Daowadung-level heaven. Indra God, who is also mentioned in the Trai-bhumi Praruang scripture, is recognized for his great merits. During the Ayutthaya period, a new king must attend a coronation ceremony called “Indra-bhisek”. This tradition lasted until the early Rattanakosin period when King Rama I performed the Indra-bhisek ceremony for his coronation at the Indra-bhisek Throne Hall. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand , a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University]

Other examples that indicate the importance of Indra God are the royal tonsure ceremony for young royal members, a ritual to open Krailas' gate and the ceremony on Mount Krailas (also known as Sumeru or Sineru Banpot Mount). The god’s names are also used in several structures in the palace, including Indra Vinijaya Throne Hall, Dusit Throne Hall, Chitralada and Paruskawan. Mythical animals like Singha and Garuda, which adorn the base of the throne, are believed to live in Mount Krailas.

The concept of a divine king is also extended to some Hindu gods, including Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, and Sun god. This is evident in the royal titles of some kings. For example, the name ‘King Rama’, which is one of several names of God Vishnu, is used as a title of several kings of Ayodhya as well as kings of the current dynasty. This includes the use of his name for palaces and places [p 24] like Piman Chakri Throne Hall in the Phya Thai Palace, Phra Narai Ratchanives Palace in Lop Buri Province, Phrathi 16 Sommutidhevarak-ubat Throne Hall and Chakri Throne Hall in the Grand Palace, as well as the use of ‘Ayutthaya’ as the province's name. Other royal titles of the kings, including Somdej Phra Narai the Great of Ayutthaya, Phra Ramindra, or the use of Ramathibodi at the end of the royal title during the Rattanakosin period, are also derived from the Dhevaraja concept.

The association between the Siam monarchy and God Vishnu can also be seen from the use of Vishnu’s image and his vehicle (a mythical animal called Garuda) as the royal symbol and also weapons, chakra (a spinning disk with very sharp edge) and a mace (Kaumodaki), as the dynasty's emblem. Buddhism and Hinduism endorse the concept of the divinity, which in fact contain different beliefs. Hinduism has an important role in the royal ceremonies. It regards kings as the reincarnation of Vishnu while, under the Buddhist belief, kings are Norbuddangkoor and Phrachao Jakkapat with Sangahavatthu 4 and 10 royal virtues.

Royal Family Customs

The King always sits higher than everyone else. Ranks within the court are often signified by how high up one sits. The elevation is often created by layers of pillows. When the King gives a speech he does from a throne that is elevated to a point that his feet are higher than everyone else’s head. Guests at the Thai Royal Palace have traditionally been required to approach the King and Queen crawling on their hands and knees. In the old days it was a criminal act to look at the king. Visitors to the palace speak a special language and never address the King directly but rather communicate with the "coarse fine invisible dust" beneath his feet. The everyday male pronoun phom , (meaning and literally translated to “my hair”) grew from this tradition and is viewed as way of expressing respect to superiors and equals.

Pictures of King Bhumibol are seemingly in every office, school classroom and restaurant. Yet he rarely speaks publically. While both the King’s official residence, the Grand Palace, and his traditional residence, Chitralada Palace, are located in Bangkok (where the King has instituted an agricultural research center), the King and Queen are typically found at Klai Kangwon Villa in the seaside town of Hua Hin.

After an election or the appointment of a new prime minister the king approves the cabinet swears in the prime minister and is asked to endorse cabinet reshuffles. King Bhumibol usually stayed out of politics and put himself above the fray except during times of crisis when he made speeches calling for unity or supported side to bring to an end to violence or upheaval.

When foreign leaders meet the king they are not supposed to wear black, because it symbolizes mourning, or make any sudden movements towards the king, including offering a handshake. The leaders make a half bow to which the king responds with a nod. The people who meet the king are introduced by their titles not their names.

Even little things can be seen as slights towards the monarchy. For instance, if you drop a coin or banknote (which have the King's image on them) on the floor you shouldn't step on them with your feet. This is viewed as stamping on the King's head. There is one story of a Frenchman who got so irate over the change he was given at a restaurant he threw the money on the ground and stamped on. A Thai man who witnessed this himself became so enraged he punched the Frenchman in the face and delivered a flying kick ot his stomach. In a similar vein, you are supposed to roll up a newspaper with a picture of the King on the front to use to squash a bug. [Source: Culture Shock Thailand!]

Royal Household Bureau and the Privy Council

The Royal Household Bureau oversees royal affairs. Their security force and guards from army, navy and air force serve as his protectors and bodyguards. The Office of His Majesty's Principal Private Secretary and the Bureau of the Royal Household are agencies responsible for organizing ceremonial functions and administering the finances and logistics of the royal palace. In discharging his formal duties, the king is assisted by the Privy Council, whose president and members are royal appointees. These members are not allowed to hold other public offices, belong to political parties, or show loyalty to any partisan organization.

The Privy Council, which is provided for in the Thai constitution, is an 18-member constitutional body that advises the king on matters of legislation, government affairs, clemency, awards, and other matters requiring the king’s signature. The Privy Council, whose members are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the king, also recommends the name of a suitable person to hold the position of regent when the king is absent from Thailand or unable to perform his duties. Under the constitution, executive governmental power is exercised through a cabinet headed by a prime minister appointed by the king.

King Bhumibol’s privy council and its leader Prem Tinsulanonda have been the targets of criticism by Red Shirts and Thaksin supporters. One Ted Shirt protester told the New York Times, “the reason they are involved in politics is because the elite wanted to maintain power.”

Royal Plowing Ceremony

Every year during a ploughing ceremony in May the royal oxen predict rainful amounts and the success of the harvest after plowing a symbolic furrow around the parade ground in front of Bangkok’s golden-spired Grand Palace. The oxen are offered a variety of foods. In 2007 they chose banana-leaf bowls of rice, corn and grass, signifying good rains and plentiful crops. They shunned a bowl of alcohol, symbolizing trade and transport, seen as a sign for exports.

The Royal Plowing Ceremony is an ancient royal rite held in Cambodia and Thailand to mark the traditional beginning of the rice-growing season. It was also practiced in pre-colonial Burma until 1885 when the monarchy was abolished. The traditional date of the Burmese royal ploughing ceremony was the beginning of the Buddhist Lent in the Burmese month of Waso (June to July). In 2009, the ceremony was held on May 11 in Thailand and on May 12 in Cambodia. The date is usually in May, but varies as it is determined by Hora (astrology). [Source: Wikipedia]

The Royal Plowing Ceremony two sacred oxen are hitched to a wooden plough and they plough a furrow in some ceremonial ground, while rice seed is sown by court Brahmins. After the ploughing, the oxen are offered plates of food, including rice, corn, green beans, sesame, fresh-cut grass, water and rice whisky. Depending on what the oxen eat, court astrologers and Brahmins make a prediction on whether the coming growing season will be bountiful or not. The ceremony is rooted in Brahman belief, and is held to ensure a good harvest. In the case of the Burmese royal ploughing ceremony, it may also have Buddhist associations. In traditional accounts of the Buddha's life, Prince Siddhartha, as an infant, performed his first miracle during a royal ploughing ceremony, by meditating underneath a rose apple tree , thus exemplifying his precocious nature. [Ibid]

Describing the royal plowing ceremony in 2006, Alan Sipress wrote in the Washington Post: “ With the king's son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, presiding, holy men led sacred white oxen along a field across from the Grand Palace in the centuries-old ritual. The beasts were then offered plates of rice, maize, sesame seeds and other food but chose an offering of grass, a sure sign, the soothsayers reported, of plentiful crops. This favorable omen received widespread press coverage, even beyond the normal 8 p.m. royal news. [Source: Alan Sipress, Washington Post, May 28, 2006]

In both Cambodia and Thailand, the ceremony is typically presided over by the monarch, or an appointee. Sometimes the monarch himself takes part in the ceremony and actually guides the plough behind the oxen. In recent years in Thailand, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has presided over the ceremony, which is held at Sanam Luang near The Royal Palace in Bangkok. Rice grown on the Chitralada Palace grounds, home of King Bhumibol Adulyadej is sown in the ceremony, and afterward, onlookers swarm the field to gather the seed, which is believed to be auspicious.

History of the Royal Plowing Ceremony

Burmese chronicles traditionally attribute the start of this rite to the late A.D. 500s during the Pagan dynasty, when it was performed by the kings Htuntaik, Htunpyit and Htunchit, all of whom bear the name 'htun' or 'plow.' At that time it was a costly ritual did not occur annually nor was it performed by every monarch. During this ritual, the king plowed a specifically designated field outside the royal palace called the ledawgyi with white oxen that were adorned with golden and silver, followed by princes and ministers, who took turns to ceremonially plow the fields. While the plowing was undertaken, Brahmin priests offered prayers and offerings to the 15 Hindu deities, while a group of nat votaries and votaresses invoked the 37 chief nats (indigenous spirits). The ploughing ceremony was a ritual to propitiate the rain god, Moe Khaung Kyawzwa in order to ensure a good harvest for the kingdom, and also a way for the king to present himself as a peasant king to the commoners. [Ibid]

In Thailand, the rite dates back to the Sukhothai Kingdom (1238–1438). In 1822 (near the end of the reign of Rama II)John Crawfurd noted, during his Siam mission: “This was a day of some celebrity in the Siamese calendar, being that on which the kings of Siam, in former times, were wont to hold the plough, like the Emperors of China,[note 1] wither as a religious ceremony, or as an example of agricultural industry to their subjects. This rite has long fallen into disuse, and given place to one which, to say the least of it, is of less dignity…. A Siamese … who had often witnessed it, gave me the following description:—A person is chosen for this occasion to represent the King. This monarch of a day is known by the name of Piya-Pun-li-teb, or King of the Husbandmen. He stands in the midst of a rice-field, on one foot only, it being incumbent on him to continue in this uneasy attitude during the time that a common peasant takes in ploughing once around him in a circle. Dropping the other foot, until the circle is completed, is looked upon as a most unlucky omen; and the penalty to the " King of the Husbandmen" is said to be not only the loss of his ephemeral dignity, but also of his permanent rank, what ever that may be, with what is more serious—the confiscation of his property. The nominal authority of this person lasts from morning to night. [Source: John Crawfurd’s Siam mission, April 27, 1822]

During the whole of this day the shops are shut; nothing is allowed to be bought or sold; and whatever is disposed of, in contravention of the interdict, is forfeited, and becomes the perquisite of the King of the Husbandmen following the ploughing. Specimens of all the principal fruits of the earth are collected together in a field, and an ox is turned loose amongst them, and the particular product which he selects to feed upon, is, on the authority of this experiment, to be considered as the scarcest fruit of the ensuing season, and therefore entitled to the especial care of the husbandman. [Ibid]

Series 2 banknotes first issued in 1925 during the reign of Rama VI and continuing into the reign of Rama VII depicted the Royal Ploughing Ceremony on the backs of all 6 denominations. Rama VII discontinued the practice in the 1920s. Rama IX, King Bhumibol Adulyadej revived it in 1960.

Royal Funerals

Royal family members are put to rest with an elaborate six-day funeral and honored with a 100-day mourning period. Thais wear black and stay quiet during the funeral period. White flags are flown at half mast. The ritual ends with a cremation, the collection of deceased’s ashes in a lacquered, diamond-encrusted urn and a procession with several hundred soldiers from a specially-built crematorium to the Royal Place in old Bangkok.

The last royal funeral was in January 2008 for King Bhumibol’s elder sister Princess Galyani Vadhana. Reuters reported: “The palace announced a 100-day mourning period and government offices lowered their flags to half-staff, as thousands of Thais placed garlands in the princess’ honor outside the hospital where she passed away. The princess’ body was to be transferred to the Grand Palace later in the day in a teak coffin. Thais were requested to “refrain from entertainment activities” for 15 days. A major golf tournament in Thailand was postponed to show respect for the princess after she died.

Chularat Saengpassa wrote in The Nation: “In Thai culture, a mourning period is traditionally followed by entertainment. In line with ancient beliefs, a royal cremation ceremony is a way to see the late royal off to heaven. The tradition for a royal cremation to be accompanied by major entertainment programmes can be traced back to the Sukhothai era. The entertainment serves to mark the end of mourning and also to honour the late royal. When the Rattanakosin period began, King Rama I followed the centuries-old tradition. At the king’s orders, various forms of entertainment such as khon (Thai classical masked drama), puppet shows and Chinese opera accompanied the cremation of his father. [Source: Anucha Thirakanont, Thai Khadi Research Institute director, Chularat Saengpassa, The Nation, November 18, 2008]

Entertainment at royal cremations continued until the reign of King Rama VI who decided to stop the practice because of the high cost. The ancient tradition was later revived by the current monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. One of his daughters, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, suggested having entertainment at the cremation of her grandmother, Princess Sri Nagarindra the Princess Mother, in 1996. The suggestion came because the Princess saw how sombre without any entertainment the atmosphere was at the 1985 cremation of Queen Rambhai Barni, wife of King Rama VII. In response to Princess’ suggestion from, the 1996 cremation of the Princess Mother was accompanied by khon, stage plays, shadow plays and Thai puppet shows. Similar performances were a part of the cremation of Princess Galyani Vadhana in 2008 More than 2,000 artists performed shadow plays, khon, music and Thai puppet shows as part of the Princess’s cremation.

Royal Symbols and Gifts

The seven jewels that confer stature and legitimacy to the monarch: 1) the precious elephant; 2) the precious horse; 3) the precious gemstone; 4) the precious lady: 5) the precious finance minister; 6) the precious general of the army; and 7) the precious weapon. The King of Thailand used to use a fancy seven-story parasol for protection from the sun. As an expression of Burmese superiority, the Burmese ruler was known as the "Lord of Twenty-four Umbrellas."

Yellow is the royal color. In recent years it has become fashionable to pay respect to the king by wearing a yellow shirt on Monday, a custom that became widespread during the 60th anniversary of the king’s reign in 2006. The color is associated with the king's birthday and is worn to show their respect and loyalty. During protest in 2008 that closed Bangkok’s airport opponents of the Thaksin-supported government expressed their opposition by wearing yellow shirts and were called Yellow Shirts (among other things they believe that the Thaksin-backed government was not respectful enough towards the Thai monarchy.

The world's largest diamond—a 545.7-carat brown monster cut from a 755.5-carat rough diamond found at the Premier Mine in South Africa—was given to the king by a consortium of Thai businessmen. Named the Golden Jubilee, it is 15 carats larger than the Cullinan, the previous largest cut diamond.. The 30,000-carat, 15.4-pound "Royal Blue Topaz,” believed to be the world's biggest, was given to the king by the Thai Gem and Jewelry Traders Association to honor the 50th anniversary of his ascension to the throne.

The most valuable coins are a proof set of nine United States coins from 1804 to 1834 given to the King of Siam. The set is worth $3.2 million. The 1804 silver dollar in the set is worth an estimated $2 million. [Source: Guinness Book of Records]

White Elephants

Among the Thais and other peoples of Southeast Asia, white elephants are regarded as symbols of power and fertility. According to Buddhist lore the Buddha’s mother Queen Mahamaya dreamed of white baby elephant at the conception of Lord Buddha. The discovery of white elephants in the wild is a major event that causes a big stir in the countries of Southeast Asia. This is stark contrast to the West where the expression “white elephant” describes an expensive but useless thing.

In the days of the Siam kingdom, rare white elephants were worshiped and the white elephant babies were suckled by human wet nurses. White elephants are regarded as the most auspicious of all animals in Laos, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia as far back as anyone can remember. They have been sought after and the object of envy. Kings added possession of them to their titles. Great empires have gone to war over them.

The royal "white elephants" in Thailand are in fact are pinkish brown or with some whitish markings. They are often difficult to distinguish from normal elephants. Only one looks genuinely pale. The others look like normal elephants. Their proper name is chang samkan, meaning “important” or “significant” elephant. Most are not albinos, which are usually whitish beige.

In 2004, a beige-colored albino elephant was discovered in Yala National Park in Sri Lanka. It was a female believed to be around 11 years old. It is extremely rare to find such an animal. There have been reported sightings of such elephants in Thailand and other places put this marked the first time ever that an the existence of a true albino elephant had been confirmed.

Thailand’s Royal White Elephants

Thailand had 11 “white” elephants in the early 2000s. Symbols of the monarch’s power, all belonged to King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The person with the most white elephants is considered the most powerful person in Thailand. The elephants existence and good health ensure prosperity for the Thai kingdom. They are regarded as the earthly manifestation of Erawan, the many-headed celestial elephant of the god Indra.

Only one royal elephant lives behind the royal moat in the royal palace in Bangkok. Others live at other facilities elsewhere in Thailand. Some royal elephants are kept at the elephant center in Lambang, where four attendants are assigned to each anima and the animals spend their day munching on leaves of replanted teak trees, are hand fed sugar cane and tamarind and have a reservoir where they can take their daily baths. At night they sleep in the their individual sleeping pavilions.

Chadwick found the animals in the darkness of a gilded pavilion, "surging back and forth at the end of a chain, his strange pale eyes blue one moment and green the next, alone, colossal, and very likely insane. Thrice this great mad elephant trumpeted wildly in alarm, I was told. Each time the king was threatened by danger, including an attempted coup.?

There are also royal white oxen. See the Royal Ploughing Ceremony

Determining Royal Thai Elephants

What exactly defines a white elephant is the subject of large body of literature. They are not white or albino. They are rare, light-toned animals that must have a particular set of characteristics to be labeled as white. The criteria to define a white in elephant in Thailand is secret and takes experts weeks to sort out.

The basic requirements for a white elephant are that it must have some “white” skin (pink splotches on the skin), white eyes, a white upper palate, white nails, white fur, white tail hair and a white scrotum. In Thailand white elephants are supposed to be treated with the same respect accord royal children.

By law every white elephant born in Thailand must be presented to the king. Prospective candidates are chosen not only on the basis of pink skin splotches but also on the shape of their trunk and tail, the quality of their vocalizations and even the smell of their dropping. The royal families in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia used to keep white elephants but the custom has largely died out there along with the power of the royal families.

"To an inexperienced man they may look like normal elephants," the overseer of ceremonies at the Royal Palace in Bangkok told National Geographic. "But I have studied them all my life to be able to tell you about their special qualities: a certain shape to their ankles and tail. A whiteness of the eyes, the hair tops, the white skin between folds, and the nails. The greatest of all elephants has two extra toe nails. He is of the same rank as a prince." The name of this cherished elephant has a name four lines long, proclaiming him to be a lotus-colored gift.

Royal Elephant Stories

Stories about white elephants describe them living like Roman emperors on the palace grounds where they were protected from the sun with silk umbrellas and fed fruit on jewel encrusted platters while court musicians entertained them. Young elephants were said to be suckled by human wet nurses.”

A jealous Burmese rulers declared war against Siam when a Thai king refused a request to give the Burmese ruler two of his seven white elephants. In the 17th century, a Dutch chronicler. Described a Thai monarch who staged an elaborate cremation ceremony for the elephant and ordered the execution of any keeper responsible for the death of a baby white elephant.

In the old days the elephants used to walk down the streets of Bangkok every morning on their way to the river for a bath. The only time this routine was changed, according to an old National Geographic article, was during rutting season when male and female elephants were separated. Bangkok's trolley drivers didn't like this because the male elephants often mistook trolleys for female elephants, often taking off after the trolleys and making a big racket and fuss as they did so. Most trolley drivers were skilled and experienced enough to outrun the run the elephants.

In the early 2000s, plans were announced to clone the famous white elephant that belonged to King Rama III, who ruled from 1824 to 1851.

Royal Siamese Cats

The 50 or so royal Siamese cats, whose ancestors lived in the royal palace of Rama V, are taken care of by film producer Namdee Witta, a relative of the royal family. Cats of the same breed are featured on Thai lottery tickets and Thai postage stamps.

The cats are pure white and belong to variety known as khao manee ("diamond eyes'). Each one has two different colored eyes (green and yellow or blue and white). Believed to be the only pure bred khao manee left, they live in teak-paneled rooms, drink bottled mineral water, and are served food in gold- and silver-plated bowls.

"They are princes and princesses and the deserve the best, "Namdee told the Los Angeles Times. "Their value is beyond price. How valuable? Well, I can tell you, six years ago a monk had a Siamese cat of this breed and he sold it for 150 million baht [about $4 million] to a very wealthy jeweler. The monk built a temple with the money."

Namdee, who originally preferred dogs, took over raising the cats when his aunt, a granddaughter of Rama V, complained the cats scratched up her sofa. He spends so much time taking care of the cats he had to give up film making.

Wealth of the Thai King

The family of King Bhumibol controls vast business interests in Thailand, including large valuable tracts of land in Bangkok. In 2008, Forbes magazine estimated the wealth of King Bhumibol to be $35 billion, making him the richest royal in the world and richer than Queen Elizabeth II of England or the King of Saudi Arabia. The Thai foreign ministry claimed the figure was “inaccurate and inconstant,” saying it included “land and other assets belonging to the Crown Property Bureau, which is not His Majesty’s personale net worth.”

In 2012, Forbes reported: “Thailand’s King Bhumibol is the world’s longest serving ruler. He is also the richest – by a comfortable margin. Last year Forbes estimated his net wealth in excess of $30 billion, beating oil-rich Brunei’s Sultan Bolkiah into second place. A gaggle of Gulf potentates and European royals round out our list. Bhumibol’s top ranking is controversial in Thailand, to say the least. Republicans grumble that the monarchy is wasteful and inefficient. Others are horrified that foreigners have the gall to turn a lens on their deified ruler. Royal courtiers insist that Forbes has it all wrong, that the billions on the balance sheet belong to the crown, not the man. They also contest the property valuations on which much of our estimate is based. Yes, they say, the monarchy is sitting on prime tracts of land in Bangkok and central Thailand. But it leases land and rent properties at subsidized rents that no commercial agency would tolerate. So the king isn’t loaded, just landed (and a value investor, as we’ll see). [Source: Simon Montlake, Forbes, January 20, 2012]

“A new, semi-official biography, entitled ‘King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work’, provides a peek into the royal money machine. A chapter in the book zeroes in on the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), which manages the crown’s property and investments. It confirms the vast land holdings that Forbes used as the basis of its estimate (drawing on a 2005 Thai academic study). In central Bangkok, the king owns 3,320 acres; town and country holdings stretch to 13,200. However, the book sticks to the CPB’s line that the combined value is less than a third of our estimate for the Bangkok land (which is much simpler to assess). “The value of the crown property is considerable, but putting an exact figure on it is difficult,” it concludes. Moreover, only 7 percent of the royal land is leased on a fully commercial basis, with annual rents equivalent to as much as 4 percent of market value. Some downtown sites are occupied by government ministries and agencies, others by slum housing, markets and shophouses. In 2010, aggregate income from property came to 2.5 billion baht ($80 million at current rates). One prime site is CentralWorld, a shopping mall that was partly torched in 2010 red-shirt riots. Another is the nearby Four Seasons hotel. In total, the CPB says it has 40,000 rental contracts, of which 17,000 are in Bangkok. [Ibid]

Much easier to measure are the crown’s corporate jewels. The CPB holds a 23 percent stake in Siam Commercial Bank, one of Thailand’s largest with a market cap of $13 billion. It also owns 32 percent of Siam Cement Group, a $12.6 billion industrial conglomerate. Add those together and you have stock worth $7 billion. In 2010, these companies paid $184 million in dividends to the bureau. In fact, according to the book’s authors, the CPB’s total revenues have averaged 9-11 billion baht a year since 2008. So even when times were hard (Thailand’s economy stalled in 2009), the crown collected a cool $290 million. The book doesn’t mention that the CPB also has a majority holding in German hotel group Kempinski AG. Another unit is Bangkok-based Deves Insurance. In 2008, this and other holdings were valued at $600 million. Even without these unlisted assets, the CPB is the largest corporate group in Thailand. [Ibid]

By comparison, Thailand’s richest entrepreneur, Dhanin Chearavanont, founder of food powerhouse CP Group, is worth $7.4 billion. Bhumibol’s fortune is much larger. That’s why Forbes ranks him as the world’s richest monarch. Yet Bhumibol’s biographers are at pains to point out that the CPB isn’t his personal piggybank (a separate agency handles the royal family’s private assets) and so it’s incorrect to label him as ultra-rich. The assets belong to the crown, not the individual. For now, the fortune is in Bhumibol’s hands. His anointed successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, will inherit the keys to the safe. In other words, it’s a family enterprise in which the assets are gifted to the next generation. [Ibid]

Crown Property Bureau

The Crown Property Bureau, the investment arm of the Royal Family, hold much of the Thai Royal Family’s assets. Most of its assets are in land and shares of stocks like Siam Cement and Siam Commercial Bank. Simon Montlake wrote in Forbes: “ So what exactly is the CPB? Ah, therein lies a mystery, as the book explains. “It is not part of the palace administration, nor is it a government agency, nor is it a private firm. It is a unique institution.” Got that? Crucially, the bureau pays no business tax, and nor does Thailand have a land tax. Its tax-exempt status is enshrined in law. Yet it’s not a charity or a public agency (or a sovereign wealth fund). It’s not obliged to issue an annual report. It answers only to the king, whose investment strategy isn’t up for public debate. Actually, there’s a lot about the monarchy that isn’t up for debate in Thailand, which is why dozens of people are either in prison or awaiting trial for royal defamation. In this vacuum, Bhumibol’s personality cult has assumed titanic, often absurd, proportions. [Source: Simon Montlake, Forbes, January 20, 2012]

One justification for the CPB’s privileged status is that its annual, tax-free income defers the cost of maintaining the monarchy. “Core expenses are covered by the revenue of 9-11 billion baht from the portfolio of assets managed by the Crown Property Bureau,” the book claims. Yet taxpayers are still on the hook for their share of palace expenses. In the 2011 budget, the Bureau of the Royal Household received $84 million. Another department got $15 million. The book notes that once security costs are factored in, the government spends around $194 million a year on the royal family and its courtiers. This is in addition to the CPB’s income (minus its costs). This implies that in an average year, the Thai crown burns through half a billion dollars. [Ibid]

Compare this, if you will, to the profit and loss account of European heads of state. Spain’s constitutional monarchy costs the country $12 million a year; Britain’s much larger royal family gets nearly $50 million, but remits most of its crown property income to the treasury. Last year, it made $358 million from its holdings. British taxpayers can also find out easily where their money is spent (property upkeep, administration, overseas trips, etc). Thailand is another matter entirely, as the king’s biographers note. “The CPB has begun edging towards greater transparency but there remains some way to travel.” [Ibid]

Influence of the Royal Household on Thai Culture

In the past, the Royal Household served as a primary source for information on home economics, cooking, needlework, and Thai manners. The royal ladies in the palaces rigorously trained their ladies-in-waiting; therefore, many upper-class families took their daughters there so that they would learn to cook and to do other household chores, and thus be prepared for marriage and family life. The royal palace's home economics expertise has since proliferated. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

After the country's change in 1932 from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, during the reign of King Rama VII, the old and new generations of the Royal Household maids moved out of the palaces. Some modified and applied what they learned to earn money to support themselves or their families.

Some foreign dishes on the royal menu have been modified to please the Thai palate. Sometimes the cooks are inventive and modify dishes from the other regions, too. These days, the food that is made for the Royal Household is not much different from the common folks' dishes; in fact, some of the dishes are even prepared for sale to the general public in various outlets.

Thai Monarchy, Movie Theaters and the Media

In Thailand people are required to stand in respect to the King at the commencement of films and to stop walking and/or stand during the playing of the national anthem at 8:00am and 6:00 pm. If you enter a movie theater while the picture of the royal family is on the screen you are expected to stand at attention with your hands at your sides. People who have remained seated duing the show of respect have been heckled by other moviegoers and even arrested (See Lese Majeste Laws).

Alan Sipress wrote in the Washington Post: “On the 8 p.m. royal news “Thailand's half-dozen television stations suspend their standard daily fare to air updates on the king and his family. For several minutes each evening, the stations broadcast nearly identical footage, sometimes depicting the king in white uniform officiating from his gold throne at palace ceremonies, sometimes showing loyal subjects prostrating themselves before the monarch and his family, offering gifts and other tribute in ornate gold bowls. [Source: Alan Sipress, Washington Post, May 28, 2006]

Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation: “Usually, the Thai media reports on matters related to royal activities regulary including publishing photographs during important public functions. References to royal commands have come in two ways, through the king directly, such as his birthday speech, or through quotations from someone who has had an audience with the king. For instance it is customary for a prime minister during his tenure to have audiences with the king. The media will report what the prime minister says with royal quotations. As a rule the Royal Household does not reveal the details.”

Notable Early Kings of Thailand

In Thai history there have been 36 Kings of Lan Na, 9 of Sukhothai, 9 of Chiang Mai, 8 of Nan, 36 of Ayutthaya, 1 of Thonburi, and 9 of Bangkok. While each has certainly made important contributions to Thai history, the following Kings stand out in the annals of Thai history:

Mangrai, Lan Na (ruled 1259 – 1317): The founder of the Lan Na Kingdom, Mangrai had just become ruler of Chiang Saen at age 21 when he set about uniting the disparate realms of northern Thailand. By 24 he had founded the city of Chiang Rai and established his capital there. Mangrai forged an alliance between Ngam Muang of Phayao and Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai while using subterfuge to assume control of the ancient Mon city of Haripunjaya. As founder of Chiang Mai in 1296, Mangrai oversaw the construction of many important Buddhist shrines and his great alliance among Tai and Mon tribes allowed him to ward off Mongol invaders. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

Ramkhamhaeng, Sukhothai (ruled ca. 1279 - 1298): As a 19 year old prince of a fledgling kingdom, Rama led his fathers troops to victory and thus earned the name Ramkhamhaeng (Rama the bold). As king, he was a populist, assuring his subjects of fair treatment and allowing them freedom to worship animist spirits while staunchly supporting the development of Buddhism. The kingdom of Sukhothai flourished during his reign as he generally chose to avoid unnecessary conflict and allied himself with King Mangrai of Lan Na and Ngam Muang of Phayao. Almost exclusively under the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng was Sukhothai an expansive and prosperous kingdom that would develop an artistic style renowned for its great beauty. For more details See History.

Ramathibodi, Ayutthaya (ruled 1351 – 1369): Perhaps born of wealthy immigrant Chinese merchants, U Thong married wisely and applied political skill and familial relations shrewdly to fill the void of power in Central Thailand following the decline of Sukhothai and the waning reach of Angkor. Installing his son on the throne of Lopburi and founding his new kingdom along the Chao Phraya River, Ramathibodi I, first King of Ayutthaya, established a powerful kingdom that may even have sacked Angkor.

Naresuan, Ayutthaya (ruled Jun 1590 – Apr. 25, 1605): In the decades before Naresuan assumed the throne, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya was in shambles. The throne was held by a puppet of neighboring Burma, which had recently conquered the city. While the Burmese razed, looted, and depopulated Ayutthaya for a decade, the Khmers decimated the Thai eastern provinces and there was little glimmer of respite or hope. Enter Naresuan who slew the Burmese crown prince in a duel atop war elephants and then proceeded to change the balance of power in Southeast Asia, ‘liberating’ Lan Na and even offering his navy to China for battle with Japan.

Taksin, Thonburi (ruled 1767 – 1782): Burmese armies had decimated Ayutthaya in 1767, leaving but a small garrison behind in the ravaged capital. The Siamese, with no capital, no king, and no government were in despair. The Governor of Tak, a half Chinese-half Thai man of considerably charisma and military cunning established his base at Thonburi and defeated the remaining Burmese troops. His ability to raise capital and re-conquer all the Siamese territory once held by Ayutthaya –in addition to annexing Siem Reap and Battambang and later subjugating Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Chiang Mai- allowed him to justify his ascension to the throne he had usurped.

Notable Later Kings of Thailand

Phra Phutthayotfa Chulalok (Rama I), Bangkok (ruled Apr. 6, 1782 – Sep. 7, 1809): Tong Duang, the Chaophraya Chakri, was a military commander who was responsible for many of the successful campaigns that reestablished Siam under the rule of King Taksin. Both he and his wife were of noble families of Ayutthaya and after an uprising deposed (and executed) Taksin, the Chakri was popularly nominated and crowned King Ramathibodi. He established his capital at Bangkok and the city quickly flourished thanks in great part to his insightful religious, bureaucratic, and legislative reforms and a reinstitution of royal and public ceremonies. Through subsequent battles against Burma, Siam was able to reassert itself as the dominant player in the heartland of Southeast Asia. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

Mongkut (Rama IV), Bangkok (ruled Apr. 3, 1851 – Oct. 1, 1868): Just prior to his father’s death Mongkut was ordained at an unusually young age and he studiously absorbed the knowledge of Buddhist texts and the mental discipline of meditation. His brother, King Rama III, appointed Mongkut abbot of a new Buddhist order, which also served as a center for western scientific and mathematic studies. As King, Mongkut made economic concessions to foreign powers and established personal diplomatic relations with various world powers in order to insulate Siam against British and French colonialism. He also set a slow course for domestic changes that he knew would take time to implement. For more details See History.

Chulalongkorn (Rama V), Bangkok (ruled Oct. 1, 1868 – Oct. 23, 1910): Appointed King at the age of 15 upon his father’s death, King Chulalongkorn had been groomed by his father to lead Thailand into the 20th century. Benefiting from a classical Thai education, a western tutor (Anna Leonowens), and several years of hands-on apprenticeship with his father, Chulalongkorn began enacting reforms immediately upon being crowned after coming of age. Among the accomplishment during his storied 42 year reign were the abolition of slavery, restructuring the form of government to a more modern and effective bureaucracy, and consequently making concessions to foreign powers in order to maintain Siam’s sovereignty.

Prajadhipok (Rama VII), Bangkok (ruled Nov. 26, 1925 – Mar. 2, 1935 – abdicated): The youngest son of King Chulalongkorn and 76th of 77 children, Prajadhipok was an unlikely selection to succeed his much better prepared elder brother (Rama VI). After coming to power amidst the economic turmoil that soon spiraled into the Great Depression, Prajadhipok reigned for just 10 years and is best known today for serving as the last absolute monarch of the Kingdom of Siam, abdicating his throne after a Constitutional Monarchy was established in 1932.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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