Life in the grand palace


A dazzle of gold and a blaze of colours _ that's your first impression of the Grand Palace as you come down the avenue of ugly dull buildings. It is a splendid mass of pagodas, towers, halls and chapels with triple roofs ending in flourishes of serpents' tails. The temple bells glint from the eaves below roofs covered with blue and orange, green and yellow tiles. The buildings look like blown up toys. The black spires seem remote and unreal as fairy tales and dreams. High white walls surround the city for it is indeed a little city of its own.

King Chulalongkorn and Queen Saovabha Phongsri with their children. The Royal Family adopted Western-style attire as the monarch began to modernise the country.

As you drive through the enormous red teak gates you notice they are not perpendicular. All the gates and doorways lean inwards for added strength. The Ministry of Finance and other government institutions have their offices here in this outer courtyard. You walk across the stone covered court through another great gate into the middle of the courtyard. To the left is the Amarin Winichai Hall, a large white building decorated with broken glass and china and carved marble doorways. Inside here you can see the ornate gold throne on which the King sits for his coronation. To the right you see a tall building in another courtyard with a large Garuda (mythical bird), with wings spread out, at the base of a beautiful black roof. But in the middle behind a lawn bordered with clipped trees you see with a slight shock a sickly green and pink building with three umbrella-like spires. It looks like a Westerner wearing a Thai dancer's headdress. The building is plainly European except for the roof. The older buildings were put up in the late 18th century when Bangkok was founded but this last one was built by King Chulalongkorn, Anna's pupil.

Note: Six months after the publication of her biography Siamese Memoirs: The Life and Times of Pimsai Svasti last year, two additional boxes of the author's writings and notes were found by her family, some unpublished, including this article written some 50 years ago based on an interview with Princess Chongchitrathanom Diskul, a daughter of Prince Damrong Rajanubhab.

The story goes that the King had been thrilled by Victorian and European art after his visit to Europe and so commissioned an English architect to design a new throne hall. Work started and the building had reached the second storey when they remembered that it was propitious and therefore imperative for a Thai king to live under a prasad (a spire rising from an umbrella-like structure). In fact, in the old days kings had a palace for each season _ cool, hot and rainy _ and each palace had a prasad. So they decided that the conventional European roof in the design should not be used and three traditional Thai ones placed on top. This is one of the many compromises that the King made in Westernising his country.

On the left of the extraordinary throne hall is another gate guarded by two large Chinese stone dogs and a lone sentry. This is the gate into the Inner Court where the King's wives and children used to live. No boy over 13 was allowed in there _ not even the King's sons _ they had to live in the houses in the middle of the court. Now no one is allowed in without special permission from the King.

!I wanted very much to see inside or at least to know what life inside was like in the days of King Chulalongkorn [Rama V]. So I went to see Princess Chongchitra.

Of my father's cousins she is one of my favourites. She is 80 years old and tiny, very thin and has twinkling eyes full of mischief. Her wrinkles are kind and happy ones. Her memory is fantastic, so visits with her are always fun. She was wearing a grey wrap-over skirt we call pahsin, it was mid-calf length and her over-blouse was loose with long sleeves with white flowers on a background of grey. In the old days they used to wear jungkrabane _ a long length of cloth tied in such a way that the result was like a divided skirt. On top they would wind a scarf over their bosoms and if they went out they put on a blouse. For special occasions the blouses would be European in style such as worn by the ladies in Edwardian England. They wore a different colour for each day but the scarf and blouse would always be a different colour from the jungkrabane.

King Chulalongkorn with Crown Prince Maha Vajirunhis on the day of his tonsurate.

"I was born," she said, "in my father's house [in 1886]. No one is allowed to be born in the Palace except the King's own children. It was thought to be the abode of the angels. And so no one was allowed to die either. Why, I remember once one of the ladies had a heart attack _ or perhaps it was a cerebral haemorrhage _ but anyway, she died before they could carry her out and there was such a fuss. We had to have the Brahmans in to perform all kinds of purification rites and to exorcise her spirit.

"When I was about nine years old I was taken to the cremation of the Crown Prince and there I saw Princess Suddhadibya, who was very beautiful, and I developed a crush on her. She was one of the King's daughters and I was determined to go and live with her but I didn't until three years later after my tonsure ceremony. This is the cutting of the topknot at the age of puberty for boys and girls. When children were small their heads were shaved and only a little tuft of hair was left on top and tied into a knot and fixed with a pretty pin. The topknot was cut when the child was 11 or 12. Nearly everyone did it. Ordinary families just had monks to the house. Food and gifts were presented to the monks who then chanted prayers and one of them gave a sermon. The children would have to sit and listen quietly, clean, and dressed as nicely as the family could afford. They were given valuable presents afterwards. Then the topknot was shaved off by one of the senior members of the family. The hair was then allowed to grow again.

"My tonsure ceremony was quite grand because the King cut my topknot. There were about five or six of us all done on the same day. We were beautifully dressed for it _ gold brocade, gold and diamond necklaces, bracelets, anklets and a jewelled decoration round the topknot. The jewels were so heavy they had to carry me. I couldn't move. I felt absolutely gorgeous.

"Before I went into the Palace I had to go to school. The school was under the supervision of the Department of Education. This was at the time of the modernisation of our country. It was a very new thing. My father was what would now be the Minister of the Interior. The school was run by three English women who were helped by three Siamese girls.

The Englishwomen were brought out by the department and most of them married well here. They married the many foreign advisers from Europe and America who were nearly all bachelors in those days. Queen Saovabha herself chose the Siamese teachers and sent them to study in England. They were all very intelligent but they were people of no consequence. It was unheard of in those days for a girl of good family to go abroad to study. It was ruinous for a family's reputation. It was as shameful for a family as a daughter going on the stage in the days of Queen Victoria. Girls in those days stayed at home and suitable marriages were arranged for them.

''I remember a cousin of mine. She was a very, very clever girl and unknown to everyone she sat for the King's scholarship examination and won it _ until they found out it was a girl and so they gave it to one of the men. So sad . . . she was wasted. If only she'd been born now.

''I didn't like the school. The teachers were very strict. We had to do everything ourselves and we even had to clean out the bird house where the English teachers kept their pigeons. Disgusting! We had to wear white nightgowns at night, which was not nice because one's friends looked like ghosts walking about at night. We learned all the usual things like arithmetic and history, and all the tuition was given in English except when they taught the Siamese language. We had to take turns to sit at the teacher's table to practice our English conversation. We also learned to cook and to sew.

''At first we had very good teachers from England with degrees and all. They stayed only two years because the climate was bad for them. I was very fond of the first two headmistresses we had. But the last one I didn't like at all. She was a widow who had been in India for some years. She was very strict and was always sending us to bed if we were naughty. She didn't like the Chinese servants and sacked them. She replaced them with Indians. The other English teacher smelt very bad. It was awful. We just got naughtier and naughtier until the headmistress couldn't stand us any more and sent for the supervisor _ an Englishman who was in charge of finding these teachers for the school.

''I was sent to see him and he said, 'I'm sorry you are so naughty, Princess.' So I said, 'I'm sorry too. I wouldn't be this naughty if you'd got us better teachers.' So he asked what my complaints were. I had plenty. One was that the teachers had eaten all the pigeons that the previous ones had kept as pets. It was wrong to kill, I said. And then a much more serious complaint _ that the drinking water tasted bad and smelt bad and we feared an outbreak of cholera. Well, to make a long story short the school was closed down, the teachers sent back and all the children sent home. My father was furious with me and in despair sent me into the Palace where they hoped that I would learn to become a lady. This was what usually happened to girls. When they were old enough, instead of going to school they went into the Palace. They were sent to live with a relation, not necessarily one of the King's wives or daughters but even one of their serving women would do, so that they could see how things were done. Naturally the higher you were the more you saw and learned.

''I was very excited because I was to live with that beautiful princess, HRH Princess Suddhadibya, but when I got 'Inside' I found the discipline much more strict than in school. Immediate obedience was required. There were prying eyes everywhere to see and tell tales about you. The slightest misdemeanour meant the sharp bamboo cane. All the children were beaten, including the King's children. Often the children would be whipped, not because they had done anything wrong, but to spite some other grown-up. I mean, supposing that someone had told my princess that I had been rude to her and my princess didn't believe it but because she disliked that person and was annoyed at having her tell tales about me, I would be whipped in front of that person to make her feel bad.

''Life was very hard. You had to watch your step the whole time. But I learnt a lot of things. I learnt to cook really well. I became so good that my services were in demand every day. You see, there was intense rivalry among the King's wives, as was natural, and as the King was fond of his food they tried to outdo each other in concocting tempting dishes for him. Each person would watch jealously to see what the King ate and what he said was good.

King Chulalongkorn is cooking at the summer palace in Bangkok.

''It was a great honour to be one of the King's wives. Many a girl was presented to His Majesty by her parents in the hope that she would be able to get them lucrative posts or bring land and money into the family by bearing a royal child. King Mongkut [Rama IV] certainly asked for the daughters of rich and powerful men as a guarantee of their fathers' loyalty. His son did the same. More often the King's own wives would find new ones for him. They would surround themselves with pretty ladies-in-waiting so that if the King showed a liking for one of them, they could gain favour by presenting her to him. Of course the girls didn't have to go if they didn't want to. But in fact, as far as I know, only one girl ever said no to the King. She's still alive so I won't tell you her name. She was very beautiful. Her father was one of the princes of the North. She was adopted by a childless couple who took her abroad with them. When she came back she became one of the ladies of Queen Saovabha. The King saw her and asked for her. Nothing happened at first and some weeks went by because no propitious day could be found. It was the same as getting married: Gifts of gold and jewellery had to be given to the girl and to the parents on an auspicious day, just as we have to do now when you get married. Finally the day came, she prostrated herself and said in English, 'I love and respect you as a King. I beg to be excused.' The King was so dumbfounded and impressed that he let her go home untouched, and allowed her and her family to keep the presents which were among the most expensive ever given by the King. The usual amount of gold was 400 baht, but the Princess of Chiang Mai and this girl were given 2,000 baht because it was felt that as daughters of princes of the northern states _ which had been more or less independent until only recently _ they ought to be treated as the daughters of sovereign states.

''I don't know how many wives King Chulalongkorn had. Once, when he visited Italy, he was asked this question by the Queen of Italy and his reply to her was, 'Had I met you first perhaps I would have had only one.' The King of course knew how many he had because each wife was given a sum of money for personal expenses every year. He also gave them anniversary presents. I have seen betel nut boxes presented on 5th, 10th and 15th anniversaries.

The funerary remains of Prince Damrong being collected by Princess Chongchitra for enshrinement in the Hor Phra Nak in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in 1944.

''In theory the King could make any of his wives a queen. But in practice his queens were the daughters of kings. They were called Somdet Phra Raja Devi. From these he promoted the mother of the Crown Prince who was the eldest son. The Crown Prince's mother was called Somdet Phra Boroma Rajinee. Then when he was away in Europe he appointed his favourite queen as regent and she received the top title of Somdet Phra Boroma Rajinee Nart. Other wives might have titles such as Phranang. Most of the wives were usually called Chao Chom Manda if they had children. It was plain Chao Chom if they had no children and no physical proof of the King's favour. Then the lowest of all came the Chao Chom of the Yellow Room. You see, the King's wives had to present themselves to him every day. Usually they were present at one of his meals. But the Yellow Room was a sort of passage through which the King walked from his office to his quarters, and the wives not in favour _ and so not required to be present at meal times _ had to wait for him there. It was a dreadful thing to be known as one of the ladies of the Yellow Room.

The highlights of the day were the King's meals. After his dinner at eight he worked all night. Then at dawn before he went to bed he had breakfast of rice soup. When he woke at about one or two in the afternoon he had his lunch. All his children had to come to him then. He would sit on the floor with a small table in front of him. The wives would sit in a line starting from the door and ending at his table. The dishes of food would be passed from one woman to another until it reached the King. He liked European, as well as Thai food. The Thai dishes might include a clear soup with pieces of meat and vegetables, a curry of chicken or fish, fried meat balls made of spiced pork and crab, fried sugar peas, fried fish, raw vegetables and nam prik (a sharp, pungent sauce for the fish and vegetables). The rice was served in a separate bowl. For dessert he would have at least three or four different sweets made of coconut milk and palm sugar, tapioca flour or glutinous rice, elegant meringue boats, fruit and a liquid sweet. The liquid sweet might be something simple like oranges in syrup scented with jasmine or something exotic like 'ladies' finger nails', which are made of dough rolled into round little fingers two inches long with pointed ends and boiled in coconut milk and served with grated coconut, ground roasted sesame seeds mixed with sugar and a little salt.

''The King always said such nice things to people. After eating one of my special nam prik he said, 'You have prolonged my life. The nam prik was so good.' He challenged me to make the same nam prik again for the following day because he said that only expert cooks could make the same sauce perfectly every time. I don't want to boast but I did reproduce it again and again.

Princess Suddhadibya Ratana.

''Life in the Palace was very dull. Apart from the crazes we had for bicycling and photography and playing croquet, there wasn't much amusement. Physically it was very uncomfortable. There were thousands of women and children inside the palace, living in hundreds of buildings of various sizes made of brick or wood according to the importance and standing of the owner of the house. There was no running water or sewage system. The refuse and waste matter had to be carried out in buckets. In spite of this everyone was very clean. We washed many times a day in water scented by floating jasmine in it. We kept ourselves cool by covering ourselves with kaolin mixed into a paste with Siamese scent.

''It's not hard to make scented water because you just float any sweet-smelling flowers that you like in it such as jasmine. We had huge jars of scented water, deliciously cold. Making scent was harder and many people had their own secret formulas. The secret was to get the right blend of flower oils, musk and the smoke of leaves or scented candles. We call perfume nam ob which means smoked water. We used to start with alcohol or flower water. The flower water had to be boiled. Then we put the best pimsen into it _ that's the stuff they put into smelling salts _ and let it stay like that for a few days. Then we took some niem leaves and toasted them and put them into the liquid. Neem leaves come from a sprawling plant, rather dull looking, and people grow them just for making scent. They are delicate plants and only certain people can handle them. If you have what they call 'hot hands' and you pick these leaves, the plants shrivel up and die. Usually anyone who grows them will not let any outsider touch them for fear of these 'hot hands'. Neem leaves give a distinct smell to Siamese scent. Then you can add whatever oils you like _ rose, sandalwood, ylang-ylang, lemongrass and so on. These oils came from India. The scent was made in great brass jars with tight fitting lids. The scented candles were lit and stuck on to the inside of the lid and the flame blown out. The lid was then firmly put on and the smoke left to penetrate the water inside. Our clothes were folded away into cupboards and boxes filled with flowers and smoked in the same way.

The Chakri Throne Hall in the Grand Palace. Designed by an English architect, the building’s roofs were later changed to accommodate traditional Thai style under an old belief that a Thai king must live under a prasad—a building with a tall, umbrella-like spire.

''There were gardens inside the Palace but only small ones, and with the high white walls you couldn't help feeling shut in. So it was wonderful for us when the King started to go for picnics in Dusit Park. He wanted to get out into the open spaces. He loved gardening and I remember many times when we had to stand about with lanterns at 9 o'clock at night because the King hadn't finished planting his trees. He planted whole woods. Later he built summer houses in the park so that he could spend a few nights among the trees. These houses became very large, and finally he built a palace for each of his queen and then smaller ones in the garden for the current favourites.

''In the hot season there were trips up river to the summer palace at Bang Pa-In. These were enormous fun. We went by boat _ it took about half a day to get there. The King's boat led the procession followed by his kitchen boat. His meals were transferred into a smaller boat and rowed over to him. Except for a few of the women and the pages needed on the journey, most of the staff went by train to prepare the rooms for the King and his wives, the children and all the other princes and princesses like me.

''The King liked to tour the country and these journeys were made by boat since it was more comfortable than going by train and we had no roads but a whole network of excellent canals and rivers. I was included in the royal party on one of these expeditions. It was on the trip to Phitsanulok in the north. It was the first time the King had made an inspection of the northern provinces. One of the governors earned a very high decoration for himself because of the preparations he had made for the King.

A Western-style statue at the summer palace at Bang Pa-In in Ayutthaya.

''The governor had landscaped a garden on the banks of the river. He had built little bamboo huts by the river. When the King's boat arrived the governor had it moored, and a little bridge with bamboo screens was fixed leading from the boat to the bamboo hut. In the bamboo hut was a water closet. It was the first one introduced into the country and caused great excitement and, as I said before, won the governor a very high decoration for initiative and forethought.

''The King died in 1910 at one of the palaces in the park. He was nursed by Queen Saovabha and his favourites. We were all heartbroken and shaved our heads and went into mourning. White was the colour of mourning in those days. His body was taken back to the Palace for lying in state in the middle of the night. The procession was very impressive. It was led by wailing pipe music. It was in the middle of the night because the proper arrangements couldn't be made in time _ it was 43 years since a King had died and it was some time before they could find some old men who remembered. Thousands of people lined the road, holding candles and joss sticks and it suddenly became very cold.

''It was very sad in the Palace after King Chulalongkorn's death because his successor was unmarried and would not live Inside. He preferred his palace in the park, so for us Inside, it was like a world without a sun. Life was all monotony. No King's meals to prepare; nothing to do for him. We, who had talked about what the King did, what he said, what he liked and what he disliked, now had nothing to talk about.

Chao Chom Sadab, King Chulalongkorn’s last consort.

''Some of the wives who had relations outside went home to them. Some of the King's children who had money built houses outside the Palace. Queen Saovabha herself lived at one of the palaces where there was a model farm. One by one the houses became empty. I stayed on with my Princess until she died in 1923.

''Now the Inner Palace is like a deserted city. The stone roads and paths are still there. Most of the houses are still there. I can show you where I lived. The ones that were beyond repair have been torn down and trees and lawns have taken their place. The present King allows the old retainers to live on in the houses they used to live in. Their children and grandchildren will go on doing so, I suppose, if they have nowhere else to go. The shophouses built over a hundred years ago are still there. They are two storeyed but seem so small to me now that I am used to bigger buildings. They are a bit like the old Chinese shophouses you see in Singapore. They are made of stone and look as if they need a lot of repairs. Bananas, papayas, and tamarinds grow out through the roofs of some of the buildings not yet torn down. The last of King Chulalongkorn's wives still lives there in the house he built for her. She was 16 when he died.

''It was a hard life but it taught one the qualities of fortitude, courage and unselfish service which seem to be forgotten today. All you young people think of now are freedom and pleasure. Oh well, it's your life. I've had mine . . . I can't complain.''

And with a beaming smile she treated me to the same delicious nam prik that the King had had.

King Chulalongkorn with Queen Saovabha and Queen Savang Vadhana in the inner part of the palace. No boy over 13 was allowed in this restricted area.

Princess Chongchitra, a daughter of HRH Prince Damrong Rajanuphab, with some of her younger sisters.

The most senior ladies of the royal family photographed with Her Majesty Queen Saovabha Phongsri, seated 4th right. Seated 4th left is Her Majesty Queen Savang Vadhana.

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