A Day to Remember Chulalongkorn, King of Siam

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October 23 is a public holiday in Thailand. It is the anniversary of the death of King Chulalongkorn of Siam, otherwise known as Rama V, in 1910. Westerners who think they haven't heard of this king may actually recall him from a fictional portrayal: In Rogers and Hammerstein's The King and I, he appears as a boy taught by English educator Anna Leonowens. As his father lies dying, Chulalongkorn gives his first order: that there will be no more kotowing to the king.

In Thailand, The King and I doesn't have the best of reputations, due to its paternalistic portrayal of Siamese culture. It's also not clear that the real Anna Leonowens had as much influence over the young Chulalongkorn as she claimed to have had. (For more on Leonowens, see her account of her experiences in Siam, published in The Atlantic in 1870.)

What is true, though, is that Rama V presided over a remarkable period of social reform. Ascending to the throne in 1868, he sought to bring Western values and forms of organization to his country while combatting Western attempts to colonize Siam. He is known for abolishing slavery, establishing a Royal Military Academy, and working to curtail the power of the nobles. He also sent his sons to be educated in England. In 1916, Thailand's first university was named in his honor. Below are a few photos of Chulalongkorn during his life (as a both metaphorical and literal wearer of many hats), as well as of October 23 commemorations of his legacy.


Chulalongkorn on the occasion of his second coronation in 1873. Contrast this with the photo below, where the king is in Western dress. For those who are interested: He also sports a fascinating military costume with what looks like a bedazzled white bowler hat in a photo with Tsar Nicholas II from 1891. Frankly, even renowned monarch of millinery Queen Elizabeth II could learn a thing or two from Rama V. (National Gallery of Australia/Wikimedia Commons)


Chulalongkorn sent his sons, the royal princes, to Europe to be educated. Here he is with some of his sons at Eton College in England. (Wikimedia Commons)


King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit of Thailand bow at a ceremony for Chulalongkorn in Bangkok on October 30, 1975. King Bhumibol, born in 1927, is King Chulalongkorn's grandson. (AP)


From a commemoration at the Royal Plaza in Bangkok on October 23, 1978 (AP)


Buddhist monks chant prayers during a ceremony commemorating the king in 2008. (AP)


Other ceremony observers brave the thunderstorm for the commemoration in 2008. (Reuters)

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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