Channel 3 TV’s production of Si Phaendin (Four Reigns) Part I by Paul Trafford

Si Phaendin (Thai สี่แผ่นดิน) by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj is a defining work of Thai culture, originally produced as a series of newspaper columns in the early 1950s.  It’s a form of historical fiction that conveys aristocratic life adjusting to change during four reigns from Rama V (King Chulalongkorn) through to Rama VIII (King Ananda Mahidol).

Chulalongkorn, Queen Saowapha & sons (photo credit quod.lib.umich.edu)

Chulalongkorn, Queen Saowapha & sons (photo credit quod.lib.umich.edu)

We follow the fortunes of the central character, Phloi (alternatively spelt ‘Ploy’), initially as a young lady brought up in the Inner Court of the Grand Palace under the tutelage of a princess, before leaving this sheltered existence to set up household life and family outside.  Many of the attitudes to culture and tradition, especially of older generations of Thais, can be better understood through this novel. It has been rendered in English as Four Reigns by ‘Tulachandra’, published by Silkworm Books some passages are translated verbatim, but others are summarised, quite often omitting conversations, and in some cases there is a re-ordering, so it’s quite liberal!

M.R. Kukrit also wrote dramatic works so he knew about performance and the narrative lends itself to theatre; hence in Thailand there have been many productions on stage and screen. In particular, there have been several TV productions that extend to dozens of episodes, generally following the text closely.  (Google Translate is quite reasonable for getting the gist.

Si Phaendin (credit: thaiticketmajor.com)

The cast of Si Phaendin: The Legend Musical (credit: thaiticketmajor.com)

With Four Reigns in hand, there’s an opportunity for students of Thai language to practise listening and observing many facets of Thai life as told through this the story.  Such is its reputation as being of public service that the Channel 3 TV production has been made available on YouTube, all 79 episodes. The actors speak clearly and, what’s more, the online version even omits all but ‘ticker tape’ advertising!  Of course, we can’t cover such a mammoth series in one or two blog posts, so here we shall explore a selection of scenes that highlight encounters with Farangs (Westerners) or Farang culture and their respective influences.

But before delving into the story, let us introduce the theme tune, which is indicative of the nostalgic tone towards times gone by. The lyrics were gleaned from another YouTube post.

With the help of a Thai family friend, an approximate translation is:

“People have life and a body,

having been born [human],

whether as a woman or a man.

The great benefactor,

more than any other, is the realm.


It is the land for living beings,

dependent on each other and living together.

Whoever is like the land

is kind to life from birth to death


In times of suffering that come by,

they say that in such distress it is like

our suffering visits the body;

when the body is in distress, our suffering is nearby.

[Yet] we can be happy, however we are.


When times are good, we are well

and in times of distress, this should ease.

Your benevolence is great and long-lasting;

our duty is to repay the realm.”

<repeat last 2 verses>

Now we come to the scenes.  We’ll introduce them as a series of themes, roughly in chronological order, with references to TV episodes in parallel with chapters and page numbers in the Silkworm edition of Four Reigns given in square brackets [].

The first intimations of Western influence appear in the form of various customs and objects that have been introduced by King Chulalongkorn.  Regarded as one of the greatest Thai monarchs, he made considerable effort to engage with the West, travelling widely through Europe around the turn of the 20th century and sending many of his children to be educated there, leading to significant modernisation.

The royal visit to Europe in 1897 is given as a backdrop in Si Phaendin at a time when Phloi is more absorbed in other matters; as narrated at the start of chapter 8, the elders of the court are sceptical:

“… Now it was being whispered in the Inner Court that His Majesty Phra Chao Yu Hua would be leaving for Europe!  Many elderly people refused to believe it.  It was unheard of, they said; no Thai king had travelled to that remote continent, it was not traditional, not according to royal custom…”

It’s depicted a bit differently in Episode 7 of the TV series, where we see Phloi and her close (and mischievous) friend, Choi, attending to Sadet, the princess, in her quarters.  It’s presented as a dialogue, where Choi seeks confirmation from Sadet about the plans for Phra Chao Yu Hua (the king):

We see a few material results of these encounters, which by and large don’t flatter the Europeans!  For example, we see Phloi offering a box of cigarettes to Sadet, but she becomes annoyed when she sees only two compared with a full box the day before [Ch. 8, p. 106]:

(How times have changed!  The smoking has been censored – was that in the original series or in the upload to YouTube?)

Yet, there was significant and useful technology and ‘know-how’ that could be learnt from Farangs.  On one occasion Sadet enlists Phloi to help her sort through a collection of old photographs [Ch. 10, p. 121].  This is depicted in Episode 9:

Not included in the English translation, but presumably in Si Phaendin, Sadet explains that some were taken by Farangs because in those days there weren’t people around who knew how to do it, but then the Farangs came to teach.

(Phloi is not very attentive as she is distracted by romantic thoughts.)

And the narrative describes how at times this knowledge challenged existing belief systems, particularly astrology.  In Episode 20 [Ch. 18, pp. 248-9], there is an account of the sightings of Halley’s comet, which orbited the Earth in 1910.  Prem, Phloy’s husband, wakes her up to take a look:

For most Thais such a sight had major astrological significance, striking fear into the hearts of the superstitious, particularly in relation to the monarchy.  Hence Phloi wonders anxiously, “What’s going to happen?” Prem, who has been keen to ingest Western knowledge, tries to reassure her, “Probably Nothing … I’m told by people who study farang textbooks and know about these things that it is a natural phenomenon, though a rare one.  Even so, I can’t help feeling uneasy either.”

A bit later, he adds some detail, explaining that it orbits every 75 years .But it’s only the subsequent announcement that King Edward VII of England has passed away, that Prem and Phloi feel relieved.  Their reflection is typically Thai: Prem reports he’s gone to heaven … and must have accumulated much merit that even Thais could see the sign.  Phloi wonders why this should be so, at which Prem explains that Britain has many colonies – India, Burma, etc., so they need an astrological sign for the whole world [Ch. 18, p.250].

In a later scene, Phloi experiences very severe labour pains and becomes unconscious [Ch. 20, p.270].  The Thai midwife seemingly is unable to help any further, so Prem brings in a Farang doctor, who saves her life. Four Reigns describes that when she comes to, she first sees a beard!  But the TV series only shows the scene downstairs with Prem woken up by the baby crying before the doctor (who does have a beard!) comes into view to give the news: he congratulates on the birth of a girl, but this is the last child that Phloi can have (Praphai):

Being English he’s served a nice cup of tea!   (As he’s not a native speaker and has just a bit part, this is probably not easy for the actor.)

In addition to scientific knowledge that resulted from contact with Europe came industrialisation.  One of the key areas of modernisation was transportation, which developed very rapidly.  Thus we come across the humble bicycle [Ch. 12, p.151].  Naturally, the privilege is first granted to royalty, so Sadet has a go, gamely assisted by Choi, but she doesn’t find it easy, so she then hands her bike to Choi.

Phloi herself is subsequently the recipient of her own bike which comes via her brother Pho Phoem – “one of the best makes (German, you know)”, he grins.

He’s rather coy about how he came by it (it’s not something he could afford) as it’s a delicate matter; Choi eventually gets him to admit that it’s from Phloi’s (at that time unwanted) suitor, Prem.

Then there’s the railways, described in the preceding chapter, p. 135.  At the instigation of the British the first surveys were carried out in the late 19th century, but the Thais were wary of undue influence so Germans were also brought in as a counterweight and very soon the railway network was brought under State control.  (For historical details see: Peter Sek Wannametthee’s PhD thesis (1990)

So His Majesty the King is seen taking the train from Hualamphong for the trip to Bang Pa-In, the famous floating palace towards Ayutthaya:


However, that train is anachronistic by about 50 years!  On screen we’re seeing the Pacific 824 made by the Japanese following the end of the Second World War.  It’s still very popular for outings on special occasions.

But perhaps the most significant addition (because Thailand’s railway network never grew very much), was the motorcar.   Zooming ahead to the reign of Rama VI (King Vajiravudh), Prem is a keen member of the king’s entourage and embracing just about any innovation and finding an excuse for often expensive and odd fashions.  Thus, in Episode 22 [Ch. 19, p. 262], we find Phloi in conversation with her brother Pho Phoem, flush with his newly awarded title of ‘Luang’. She hears a horn and asks, “What’s that sound?”.  Venturing outside, she sees her husband arrives in a newly acquired chauffeur-driven car.   Phloi asks if it belongs to her husband.  Conscious that it might not be approved, he insists “It’s ours.”

(That’s another anachronistic prop: I’m no expert, but it looks more like a 1930s (Austin?) model, but the period in question is just before start of WW1, i.e before 1914.)

For more insight about Si Phaendin and its adaptation check out Paul Trafford’s blog.

Luk Kreung in History and Popular Culture

It has been a while since I’ve explored the influence of luk kreung (i.e. half-Thai people) in popular culture. Today it seems that a great number of part-Thai people are prominent in Thai popular culture. However, this phenomenon is not new considering that the first luk kreung actors appeared in the 1940s to 1960s. This nevertheless, is not widely known nowadays.

In a previous article I’ve also discussed the topic of interracial marriage prior to the later decades of the 20th century mentioning that those relationships were mostly limited to small groups of people in cultural contact zones. However, interracial marriages became more common in the 1960 and 70s in Southeast Asia due to the Vietnam War. Consequently, in that time period more mixed race children were born.

Luk Kreung in History

Now I will take a look back at luk kreungs of another era and provide you a window into the past with some antique photos.

The Bunker Families (1865), wikimedia.org

The Bunker Families (1865), Siamese Twins Chang and Eng (wikimedia.org)

I’d like to begin with a historical example from the 19th century. Of course, you’ve certainly heard of the famous Siamese Twins Chang and Eng Bunker. The Siamese Twins were born 1811 and brought to the US in 1829 where they became known in freak shows. Later, the conjoined twins became American citizens and got married to the sisters Sarah and Adelaide Yates Bunker. In total they had 21 children, one of them was Catherine Bunker. I’m not sure what became of the twins’ children but probably they made a living in the United States.

Catherine Bunker

Catherine Bunker, daughter of the Siamese Twins

Perhaps you also remember the family of Mhom Mali, a Russian lady, and General Mhomjao Thongtekhayu Thongyai? I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that there were a few Thai men of royal heritage who got married to Western women in the early 20th century. Mhom Mali and the General settled in Hua Hin and had four children. Their oldest luk kreung son M.R. Chakthong Thongyai born in 1913, became a prominent politician. He became the Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives. Finally, he was also a Senator. Probably, there is no other half-Thai person to achieve this position in the Thai government. He died at the age of 85 in 1998.

Family of Mhom Mali and General Mhomjao Thongyai with their four children

Family of Mhom Mali and General Mhomjao Thongyai with their four luk kreung children

His sister M.R. Pakpring Thongyai, born in 1916 became famous too because she got married to Kukrit Pramoj.

Here is a pic of the younger versions of them...the lukkreung M.R. with the future PM Kukrit Pramoj of Thailand in their younger years

The luk kreung M.R. Pakpring Thongyai with the future PM Kukrit Pramoj of Thailand in their younger years

Kukrit Pramoj was the 13th Prime Minister of Thailand and he was also an actor. Thus, he even acted alongside Marlon Brando in the American movie ‘The Ugly American’ (1963). What is more, Pramoj is the author of the classic Thai novel ‘Four Reigns’ (Si Paendin).

Luk Kreung in Early Popular Culture

I’d like to turn to the amazing Amara Asavananda, a Thai-French actress and beauty pageant girl from the 1950s. There is one picture in which I would have mistaken her for Elizabeth Taylor. She was the 2nd runner-up of Miss Thailand in 1953 and became Miss Universe 1954 in the pageant competition which took place in the US.

Amara Asavananda

Amara Asavananda

Born in 1937 to Luang Prajerd-aksonlak (Sombhoj Asavananda) and Madam Prajerd-aksonlak (Georgette Asavananda), Amara was a well-known actress in Thai movies from the 1950s. Some examples are Prisana (1955), Leb-krut (1957), Rak Rissaya (1958), In-sree Dang (1958), Hao Dong (1958), Toong Ruang Rong (1959), See Kings(1959), Chaleoy Suk (1959,) Sud Pradthana (1961).

Amara Asavananda, Miss Universe 1954

Amara Asavananda, 2nd runner-up of Miss Thailand in 1953

In 1966, she married Police Lieutenant General Ankoon Purananda and eventually she received less acting roles. Later in the 1970s, she still worked as an actress but only got supporting roles. She has two daughters, Apichaya and Anoma. There is another luk kreung actress from that era who is called Kesarin Patamawa. Perhaps she is not as well known as Amara but she is probably Thai-French too. Here they are together in a picture.

Kesarin Patamawa and Amara Asavananda

Kesarin Patamawa and Amara Asavananda

Like Amara, Kesarin was one of the first luk kreung in Thai showbiz and pop culture in the 1950s. She was also an actress who was active in movies from 1958 to 1962. There was one movie from 1962 called ‘กัลปังหา’ in Thai which made her famous.

Kesarin Patamawa

Kesarin Patamawa

Last but not least, there is also a luk kreung politician and Thailand’s leading philanthropist that I’d like to mention here: Mechai Viravaidya, born in 1941 of Thai-Scottish origin. In Thailand he is known as ‘Mr. Condom’ because he promoted not only condoms but also family planning and  sexual-safety awareness in the 1960s and 1970s. Hence, in 1973 he founded a non-profit organization called ‘Population and Community Development Association’ (PDA). His main aim was to improve the living conditions of the rural poor. Eventually, he also founded a restaurant chain called ‘Cabbages and Condoms’ where customers got a condom with the bill. With this project, he wanted to make condoms as common and as accepted as cabbages.

Mechai Viravaidya, Mr. Condom

Mechai Viravaidya, Mr. Condom

Finally, I hope you’ve enjoyed these insights and that I could provide you a window into the past introducing you to some of the first luk kreung people in history and Thai popular culture and politics. Big thanks also to my Thai-American friend Steven Layne for this lead!

In loving memory of H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej

His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand (Rama IX) has died on Thusrday, the 13th October 2016 at the age of 88. He was the longest reigning King in Thai history and the world, having reigned since 9th June 1946.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, portrait from 1946 (photo: wikimedia.org)

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, portrait from 1946 (photo: wikimedia.org)

In loving memory of H.M King Bhumibol Adulyadej

King Bhumibol the Great is the father and the soul of the Thai nation and Thai people. Hence, the King stood above the law, being revered and immensely respected by Thai people. Thus, in the last days, Thais have payed touching respect to their King in many ways. H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej may truly be called the ‘King of Hearts’ and ‘Father of the Nation’ in Thailand.

In loving memory of King Bhumibol of Thailand

In loving memory of King Bhumibol of Thailand

There is now one year of mourning for government officials in Thailand and as a sign of respect all festivities are banned for a month. Hence, Thai people are in mourning, wearing black or white clothes and tourists are also supposed to be respectful and behave and dress decently. There are many ways, Thai people pay tribute to their King, may it be through art and music but also by doing good deeds. For instance, artists have uploaded their tributes to the King on social media. Here is an example:

Students from Silpakorn University have painted large memorable pictures from the King’s life which are very impressive.

Memorable pictures from the King's life at Silpakorn University (credit: Silpakorn University FB Page)

Memorable pictures from the King’s life at Silpakorn University (credit: Silpakorn University FB Page)

Students have painted great pictures of H.M. King Bhumibol's life (credit: Silpakorn University, FB Page)

Students have painted great pictures of H.M. King Bhumibol’s life (credit: Silpakorn University, FB Page)

Similarly, students from Khon Kaen University have worked day and night to create a work of art for their King, capturing the spirit and soul of the Father of the Nation.

There are also Thai singers who have paid tribute to the King by singing the King’s Anthem. This one is particularly touching, she is singing and crying at the same time.

Finally, there is to mention a man who collected more than tousand pictures of the King for future generations to remember.

Summing up, we may sadly say the the era of H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej has come to an end and that Thailand as we knew it is now at an end too. However, we must look positively into the future, accepting that time changes everything. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the King will remain revered and unforgotten.



The History of Wat Arun

Wat Arun is known as the Temple of Dawn located on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River in Thonburi. It is a very prominent landmark in Bangkok. This temple is best seen from the opposite river bank. The complete name of this temple is Wat Arun Ratchawararam Ratchawaramahawihan.

Wat Arun

View on Wat Arun from from Bitter Deck at Sala Arun. photo: Amazing Thailand FB page

View on Wat Arun from Bitter Deck at Sala Arun. photo: Amazing Thailand FB page

Wat Arun is a temple complex that consists of the towers, the so-called ‘Phra Prang’ (spires) which symbolize the Mount Meru of Hindu cosmology. There are also narrow lanes, old white buildings, shrines and two giants called ‘Yak Wat Jaeng’ who are the mortal enemies of the ‘Yak Wat Pho’ located across the river. The Yaks are figures from the Thai Ramakien, the white figure is called Sahassa Deja and the green one is Thotsakan, the Demon Rāvana.

‘Yak Wat Jaeng', the temple guardians of Wat Arun (photo: Sirinya Pakditawan)

‘Yak Wat Jaeng’, the temple guardians of Wat Arun (photo: Sirinya Pakditawan)

The temple has existed since the days when Ayutthaya was Thailand’s capital. It was then named Wat Makok in the place called Bangmakok meaning ‘Village of Olive’. Hence, Bangmakok was shortened to ‘Bangkok’.

The Chao Phraya River as seen from the main spire of Wat Arun; photo by John Thomson in 1865, Wellcome Library London

The Chao Phraya River as seen from the main spire of Wat Arun; photo by John Thomson in 1865, Wellcome Library London

After defeating the Burmese Army in Ayutthaya, King Taksin reached this place to establish the new capital Thonburi. He arrived at dawn and thus renamed the temple ‘Wat Jeang’. ‘Jeang’ means bright, dawn and clear. During his reign, no monks lived in this temple. However, it was used to house the Emerald Buddha which is located at Wat Phra Kaeow today.

The precious Emerald Buddha, Wat Phra Kaeow (photo credit: JPSwimmer, wikipedia.org)

The precious Emerald Buddha, today located at Wat Phra Kaeow (photo credit: JPSwimmer, wikipedia.org)

King Taksin’s General had taken the Emerald Buddha from Vientiane in Laos to Wat Jeang. Later after King Taksin’s death, this General became King Rama I (Buddha Yodfa Chulaoke). Eventually, King Rama I moved his capital from Thonburi to Bangkok taking the Emerals Buddha with him. There the Buddha was moved to his present site in the Emerald Buddha Temple.

King Rama I, Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke; photo: wikimedia.org

King Rama I, Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke; photo: wikimedia.org

King Rama II (1809-1824) started the construction of the tall spire and the four smaller ones. This was completed by King Rama III (1824-1851). The towers are supported by rows of demons and monkeys and very narrow steps lead to a balcony on the central tower.

The towers of Wat Arun are supported by a row of demons, photo: Sirinya Pakditawan

The towers of Wat Arun are supported by a row of demons, photo: Sirinya Pakditawan

The towers are built of brick covered with stucco and the decorations are also unique. There are numerous pieces of multi-coloured Chinese porcelain.

Pieces of multi-coloured Chinese porcelain at the Temple of Dawn, Bangkok (photo: Sirinya Pakditawan)

Pieces of multi-coloured Chinese porcelain at the Temple of Dawn, Bangkok (photo: Sirinya Pakditawan)

The central tower also harbours the figure of the God Indra seated on his vehicle Erawan which is the three-headed elephant. What is more, there are also figures of the Moon God on a white horse. In addition, the trident of Shiva extends from the top of each tower.

Wat Arun stairway, photo: wikimedia.org

Wat Arun stairway, I think in the centre there is Indra on his vehicle Erawan, photo: wikimedia.org

Thus, the central balcony offers an impressive view of Bangkok and the Chao Phraya River. From there you can also see the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and Wat Pho.

Wat Arun seen from the Chao Phraya River, photo: wikimedia.org

Wat Arun seen from the Chao Phraya River, photo: wikimedia.org

Summing up, I find that Wat Arun is one of the most impressive monuments that I have ever seen. I really love to visit this place soon again 🙂

Yours, Sirinya

H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej & His Music

In honour of the auspicious occasion of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s (King Rama IX) Birthday on 5th Dezember, I’d like to focus on and honour his musical talent and accomplishment. Being a talented musician, His Majesty is also referred to as the ‘Musical Monarch’.

H.M King Bhumibol Adulyadej

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, portrait from 1946 (photo: wikimedia.org)

H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, portrait from 1946 (photo: wikimedia.org)

Thus, H.M. King Bhumibol is known as a great jazz saxophone player and composer. In addition, he also plays many other musical instruments like the piano, the clarinet, trumpet and the guitar. Only few people know that His Majesty has composed 49 songs among them ‘Candlelight Blues’, ‘Falling Rain’ (Sai Fon) and ‘Love at Sundown’ which are his most popular musical pieces.

In particular, ‘Love at Sundown’ which has a foxtrot rhythm became a top hit for Thai people. However, ‘Falling Rain’ is also an all-time favourite song. These songs were composed in 1946 and are in the genre of jazz swing. What is more, the King has also written Thai patriotic songs and marches among others.

Photograph of Bhumibol and Sirikit of Thailand on their wedding 28 April 1950 (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

Photograph of Bhumibol and Sirikit of Thailand on their wedding 28 April 1950 (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

His Majesty’s musical compositions have been mainly influenced by legends like Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter, Sidney Bechet and Johnny Hodges. Thus, in his younger days, the King also performed with well-known musicians like Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Benny Carter. At that time, His Majesty’s favourite musical style was Dixie Land Jazz.

In his youth, King Bhumibol was studying in Switzerland where he received his first music lessons. The musical talent of the ‘little Prince’ was early discovered. His brother who was at that time King Ananda Mahidol also made music and later they would perform together – King Ananda on the clarinet and Bhumibol on the saxophone. At first, the two bought a second-hand saxophone for 300 francs 🙂

King Ananda Mahidol and Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1946 (photo: wikimedia.org)

King Ananda Mahidol and Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1946 (photo: wikimedia.org)

After King Bhumibol returned to Thailand in 1950, he launched a jazz band called Lay Kram. He perfomed with this band on the Palace Radio Station and as his band became more successful and grew, it was renamed as the Au Sau Wan Suk Band. His Majesty would perform each Friday evenings with his band and they also played at Thai universities. Hence, the King also wrote the anthems for Chulalongkorn, Thammasat and Kasetsart University.

It is also important to note that King Bhumibol performed with jazz legend Benny Goodman (the King of Swing Jazz) in Bangkok as well as in New York where Goodman was at home. This was in the late 1950s to 1960s. There is also a documentary film about His Majesty and his music called ‘Gitarajan’ (1996). I truly recommend you watch this documentary, if you are interested in His Majesty’s jazz music and education. What is more, there are also some interesting early and historical recordings of King Bhumibol.


His Majesty also received a number of awards for his musical accomplishment. For instance, he received the honorary membership of Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts in 1964. Later in 2000, King Bhumibol got the Sanford Medal from Yale School of Music and in 2003 he received the honorary doctorate in music from the University of North Texas College of Music.

King Bhumibol with his mother and his elder sister at Villa Vadhana, 1945 (photo: Bureau of the Royal Household, Kingdom of Thailand, wikimedia.org)

King Bhumibol with his mother and his elder sister at Villa Vadhana, 1945 (photo: Bureau of the Royal Household, Kingdom of Thailand, wikimedia.org)

Finally, we may say that H.M. King Bhumibol has been a great musician and we should honour his musical accomplishment. Today, in honour of his 88th Birthday on 5th December 2015, there will be many activities in Thailand to celebrate the King’s Birthday. For instance, there will be a bike ride called ‘Bike For Dad’ for His Majesty on 11th December. Thai people from 70 countries are expected to join their compatriots in Thailand to bike ride for King Bhumibol.

Yours, Sirinya

The Bunnag Family: Thai People of Persian Decent

It is a fact that in the period of the Ayutthaya  Kingdom, i.e. the early 17th century, Persian people migrated to Thailand. They were mainly traders and merchants. These people of Persian decent were referred to as ‘Khaek Ma-ngon’ (แขกมะหง่น) or ‘Shia Muslim’ which is ‘Khaek Chaosen’ (แขกเจ้าเซน) in Thai. Over the centuries, most of the Khaek Ma-ngon converted to Buddhism and were integrated into Thailand’s society.

Consort Samlee Bunnag [Rama 4] with her daughters around 1880, (photo credit: teakdoor.com)

Consort Samlee Bunnag [Rama IV] with her daughters around 1880, (photo: teakdoor.com)

The Bunnag family

Some of the Thai families of Iranian decent have been very influential in Thai public life. In this context, the Bunnag (บุนนาคfamily is most well-known and established up until today. Their ancestor is Shaykh Ahmad Qomi who came as a merchant to Ayutthaya in 1602 and stayed in Thailand for 26 years.

Yarinda Bunnag (photo bk.asia-city.com)

Contemporary actress, singer & architect Yarinda Bunnag (b. 1980). She was in the movie The Red Eagle starring alongside Ananda Everingham (photo: bk.asia-city.com)

The Bunnag family was acknowledged as a Siamese Royal Family in the early Rattanakosin period. They were most powerful in the 19th century. The first patriarch of the Bunnag, Akka Mahasena, was a close friend and confidant of Rama I who married five of Bunnag’s daughters as royal consorts. Thus, the Bunnag also influenced the succession in the Chakri dynasty. However, in the late 19th century the Bunnag’s power was restricted by King Rama V (Chulalongkorn).

Bunnag sisters and children sharing a meal on the veranda of the king’s residence at Dusit Palace. (image courtesy of the National Archive of Thailand, quod.lib.umich.edu)

The Bunnag family, sisters and children sharing a meal on the veranda of the king’s residence at Dusit Palace. (Image courtesy of the National Archive of Thailand, quod.lib.umich.edu)

The Bunnag daughters were royal consorts for centuries. Even during the time of King Chulalongkorn’s reign, the Bunnag sisters were concubines at the Royal Court. In this context, you may remember my article about Dara Rasami who was a Princess of Chiang Mai at the Siamese Court.

The Bunnag sisters, royal consorts, notice that they all wear a short hairstyle*

The Bunnag sisters, royal consorts at the time of King Chulalongkorn (Image courtesy of the National Archive of Thailand, quod.lib.umich.edu)

Dis Bunnag (Prayurawongse,1788–1855 ) was a son of Akka Mahasena. He was an important political figure and played a decisive role in the ascension of King Mongkut (Rama IV).

Prayurawongse, Dis Bunnag (photo credit: Watprayoon, wikimedia.org)

Prayurawongse, Dis Bunnag (photo: Watprayoon, wikimedia.org)

He became the kingdom-wide regent under King Monkut being granted the title of Somdet Chao Phraya Borom Maha Prayurawongse. One of his sons, Chuang Bunnag, became the regent for King Chulalongkorn.

Sri Suriyawongse, Chuang Bunnag (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

Sri Suriyawongse, Chuang Bunnag (photo: wikimedia.org)

Finally, we may say that the Bunnag family has been very influential in Thailand’s history. There are in fact some other Thai families of Persian decent which trace their ancestry back to Shaykh Ahmad. These are for instance the Ahmadchula families.

Yours, Sirinya

Queen Suriyothai & The White Elephant War

Every Thai person knows about the White Elephant War of 1563 and the role that Queen Suriyothai played in this context. The King of Burma learned that the ruler of Siam, King Maha Chakkraphat, owned seven white elephants. The white elephant was considered a symbol of prestige and royal power. Thus, the Burmese King was envious since there were not any white elephants in Burma at that time and he decided to have one at any cost.


Ayutthaya Queen Suriyothai Monument (photo credit: Peerapong Prasutr, wikimedia.org)

The Ayutthaya Queen Suriyothai Monument (photo credit: Peerapong Prasutr, wikimedia.org)

Therefore, the Burmese King demanded three of King Chakkraphat’s white elephants. The ruler of Siam, however, refused. As a consequence, the Burmese king led his army to Ayutthaya, the capital city of Siam. From the wall of the city King Chakraphat and Queen Suriyothai watched the Burmese soldiers invading the city.

Beautiful Queen Suriyothai (photo credit: madmonarchist.blogspot.com)

Painting of the beautiful Queen Suriyothai, source unknown (photo credit: madmonarchist.blogspot.com)

They were deeply worried because there were so many enemy soldiers. Thus, the King decided to let them attack the city and then defeat them. Queen Suriyothai was eager to go into battle with her husband but of course, the King disapproved. Nonetheless, the Queen was determined, and when the King went into battle, she remained at his side.

Painting by Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs, depicting Queen Suriyothai (center) on her elephant putting herself between King Maha Chakkraphat (right) and the Burmese prince (left). (photo credit Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs, wikimedia.org)

Painting by Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs, depicting the Queen (center) on her elephant putting herself between King Maha Chakkraphat (right) and the Viceroy of Pray (left). (photo credit: Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs, wikimedia.org)

She watched the King lead his war elephants into the heat of battle. He was duelling with the Burmese Prince when the Queen saw her husband’s body weave with the sway of his elephant. It was obvious that the King would soon be killed. However, Queen Suriyothai courageously spurred her elephant between the elephants of the royal warriors and was killed by the fatal spear intended to kill her husband.

Suriyothai Monument constructed in 1991 in the area called “Tung Makham Yong” in Ban Mai sub-district, PhraNakorn Si Ayutthaya district (photo credit: Peerapong Prasutr, wikimedia.org)

Suriyothai Monument constructed in 1991 in the area called “Tung Makham Yong” in Ban Mai sub-district, PhraNakorn Si Ayutthaya district (photo credit: Peerapong Prasutr, wikimedia.org)

Hence, King Maha Chakkraphat’s life was saved but he wept for his brave wife and did not stop the war. In four months, however, the Burmese were forced to withdraw their forces and the King of Burma did not succeed in capturing a white elephant.

Queen Suriyothai has become a very popular female historical figure in Thailand. Because of her bravery, boldness and self-determination, she is also regarded as a great feminist. Even though, in history she is only known from three lines in a chronicle, her story was filmed. Thus, ‘The Legend of Suriyothai’ (2001) directed by H.R.H Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol became very popular in Thailand similar to ‘The Legend of King Naresuan’. In 2003 ‘The Legend of Suriyothai’ was also release in the USA and edited by Francis Ford Coppola. Since nearly nothing is known about the historical Suriyothai, her story in the movie was mostly invented.


Finally, we may say that the story of Suriyothai and the White Elephant War has intrigued many generations of Thai people. In addition, the Queen may also be regarded as an early feminist with good reason.

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Marian Davies Toth, Tales from Thailand. Folkore, Culture, and History, 2nd ed. 1982)

Mueang Boran – The Ancient City

Mueang Boran (เมืองโบราณ) means literally translated ‘Ancient City’ and is accordingly referred to as ‘Ancient Siam’. It is a park and probably the world’s largest outdoor museum created by Khun Lek Viriyaphant (1914-2000) who also constructed the Erawan Museum in Samut Prakan. Visiting Mueang Boran can be compared to a Thailand-round journey within a day!

The Ancient City

At the Ancient City, Samut Prakan**

At the Ancient City, Samut Prakan**

Mueang Boran, created in the early 1970s, is also located near Samut Prakan in close proximity to the Crocodile farm, about 30 km south-east of central Bangkok, near the coast to the Gulf of Thailand.

At one of the 'Salas' in Mueang Boran*

Amazing architecture at one of the ‘Salas’ in Mueang Boran*

This museum park has the shape of Thailand and spreads over 200 acres. What is more, it features 116 miniature structures of Thailand’s famous monuments and architectural attractions of various provinces such as Prasat Hin Phanom Rung, Wat Mahathat Sukhothai, Phraphuttabat Saraburi, Phrathat Mueang Nakhon, Phrathat Chaiya and many more.

A historical Thai building**

A historical Thai building at Mueang Boran**

Apart from replicas of historical buildings, you may also encounter stunning mythical beings from Thai culture like the Naga which is the mythical snake.

The Naga-Makara - Mythical Snake and Crocodile Composite'

The Naga-Makara – Mythical Snake and Crocodile Composite*

Hence, historical structures are saved in this way and the park can be regarded as an educational area preserving Thai culture and historic building techniques. A dedicated team of local artisans work alongside experts from the National Museum of Thailand. Hence, you also find woodcarvers and other craftsmen at work there.

A woodcarver at work in Mueng Boran**

A woodcarver at work in Mueng Boran**

A craftsman at work**

A craftsman at work, Samut Prakan, Ancient Siam**

However, not all buildings are miniature, there are also some full-size replicas of existing or former sites.

Monuments from Thai history at the Ancient City*

Monuments from Thai history at the Ancient City*

The facsimiles have been created with the help and assistance of experts from the National Museum in order to ensure historical accuracy. The most outstanding structure of the Ancient City is the Grand Palace of Ayutthaya which was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767. Further extraordinary replicas are the Phimai Sanctuary in Nakhon Ratchasima, and Wat Khao Phra Viharn located on the border to Cambodia.

Replicas at Mueang Boran*

Chinese style replicas at Mueang Boran*

In the museum park, there are artificial watercourses and mountains. Sometimes you can also spot some shy red-deers that browse the green areas. Apart from the 116 monuments, there are many statues which represent famous incidents in Thai history or literature. For instance, the following picture shows the Dvaravati Buddha at the Stupa of Phra Maha That, Chaiya, Surat Thani.

I think this is the Dvaravati Buddha statue*

I think this is the Buddha Image of the Dvaravati Period, Ancient City*

The Buddha's face*

The Buddha’s face, Dvaravati Period*

Generally, the museum presents different periods of Siamese craftsmenship ranging from prehistorical times, Dvaravati, Srivichaya, Khmer to Lanna, Lan Chang, Hariphunchai and Sukhothai. The following periods called Authong, Ayutthaya, Thonburi and Rattanakosin are also represented there.

A re-creation at the Ancient City**

A re-creation at the Ancient City**

The landmarks are all in geographical order. Visitors of the museum receive a map in which all monuments are listed and numbered consecutively. Apart from the replicas there are also rare traditional folk arts and cultures. However, sustenance is also provided there – check out the restaurants, food and drink outlets and the Floating Market 🙂

A waterway at Mueang Boran**

A waterway at Mueang Boran**

If you wonder how to move around the large park area, you may hire a golf cart or a bicycle. In addition, private vehicles are also allowed at a fee.

Amazing sight at the Ancient City**

Amazing sight at the Ancient City**

Finally, we may claim that the Ancient City is an extraordinary outdoor museum that brings Thailand’s history under one roof. Hence, this park also helps to preserve Thailand’s rich cultural heritage.

Yours, Sirinya

(photo credit: *Amporn Konglapumnuay, ** Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram @knack66)

Luk Kreung and the Construction of Thainess

Cultural studies have explored the relationship between farang and Thai national identities or Thainess. These studies put forward that since the 1950s and the beginning of the 21st century, foreign influences have intensified to intimate levels of cultural and physical hybridization. Thus, in the form of Thai-farang or luk kreung, foreign otherness seems to have become an object of cultural intimacy in Thailand.

Luk kreung & Thainess

We may say that as a post-Vietnam War era phenomenon, cultural intimacy between Thai and farang have increased, hence exceeding the forms of cultural contact in previous generations. Thus, interracial marriages have become a widespread social phenomenon since then, although these kind of unions, and hence luk kreung people, have been known since the Ayutthaya period.

Prince Chula & Elizabeth Hunter (photo credit: viola.bz)

The half-Thai Prince Chula Chakrabongse & his English wife Elizabeth Hunter (photo credit: viola.bz)

In earlier times, i.e. prior to the later decades of the 20th century, interracial marriages were generally limited to small groups of people. These were persons who were in the main cultural contact zones (e.g. Christians, Chinese) and who worked closely with Europeans.

Ekaterina Desnitska and Chakrabongse Bhuvanath (photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org)

Ekaterina Desnitskaya, Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath and son Chula (photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org)

Nevertheless, there were some rare cases in which Thai and European unions occurred among royals or the elite. For instance, think of Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath (Prince of Bisnulok) and his Ukranian wife Ekaterina ‘Katya’ Desnitskaya and their half-Thai son Prince Chula Chakrabongse.

Prince Rangsit, his wife Elizabeth and their three children (photo credit: songkran.eu)

Prince Rangsit, his wife Elisabeth and their three children (photo credit: songkran.eu)

Another prominent example is the racially mixed marriage between Prince Rangsit Prayurasakdi and the German lady Elisabeth Scharnberger. They had three children, two sons and a daughter called Princess Charulaksana Kalyani Rangsit.

Princess Charulaksana Kalyani Rangsit (born 7 August 1924) (photo credit: Seissenshi, wikimedia.org)

Princess Charulaksana Kalyani Rangsit (born 7 August 1924) (photo credit: Seissenshi, wikimedia.org)

In fact, there were a few Thai men of royal descent who married Western women at the beginning of the 20th century. For instance, there was Lady Ludmilla Ivanovna Barsukova from Russia who was married to General Mhomjao Thongtekhayu Thongyai. They had four children together and stayed in Hua Hin. Lady Ludmilla, who is probably of Russian royal lineage, lived in Thailand until she died in 1980 at the age of 90. Her Thai name was Mhom Mali.

Lady Ludmilla & Prince Thongyai with their four children in Hua Hin (photo credit: returnthai.com)

Lady Ludmilla & Mhomjao Thongtekhayu Thongyai with their four children in Hua Hin, 1921 (photo credit: returnthai.com)

Thai-farang relationships first became a common social practice since the 1960s when American GIs were stationed at the US military bases in upcountry Thailand. Hence, some of them formed relationships to Thai women who mostly stemmed from the countryside. As a consequence, a remarkable numer of half-Thai people were born who also became a prominent topic in novels, movies and TV series during the 1960s and 70s.

The most significant novels dealing with Thai attitudes to luk kreung were Sifa’s ‘Khao nork na’ (1976, Wild Rice or literally translated ‘Rice Outside the Paddy Field’) and Botan’s ‘Phuying khon nan cheu Bunrort’ (‘That Woman’s Name Is Bunrort’) which was published in 1981. You might recall my previous article about ‘Luk kreung and Concepts of Mixed Race in Thailand’, then you know that the luk kreung from the Vietnam War era were not regarded as desirable.

The Siam Renaissance (photo credit: viki.com)

The Siam Renaissance – luk kreung as representatives of Thainess (photo credit: viki.com)

However, this perception has changed since the 1980s. Generally, it seems that Thailand has discovered Thai-farang as representatives of a modern form of Thainess. For example, the movie ‘The Siam Renaissance’, starring Thai-French actress Florence Faivre, deals with this subject. The movie reveals how the concept of the powerful West is stripped of its foreignness in order to become part of modern Thai identity.

The Thai-ization of the farang (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com)

The Thai-ization of the farang in the Siam Renaissance (photo credit: 2g.pantip.com)

What is more, cultural anthropologist Jan R. Weisman argues that the luk kreung boom reveals the Thai fascination with half-Thai people, a phenomenon related to issues of modernity, sexuality and race. In this way, Thai-farang is presented as being cosmopolitan, thus being able to act on a global stage. Hence, the general popularity of Eurasian luk kreung have also strengthened the allure of farang in popular culture that manifested first in the late 19th century with the Siamese strive for ‘siwalai‘ or ‘civilized’ things.

Summing up, we may claim that the present popular cult of the European-Thai luk kreung shows that they are very important in constructing a modern Thai identity which is also referred to as Thainess.

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Rachel V. Harrison & Peter Jackson eds. The Ambiguous Allure of the West. Traces of the Colonial in Thailand, 2010)

The Legend of King Naresuan (History & Movie)

The story of the Black Prince dates back to the historical Ayutthaya period. Prince Naresuan (in Thai: Ong Dam, องค์ดำ) was born 1555 in Phitsanlunok, Thailand. His brother Ekathotsarot was called the White Prince. In contrast to his brother, he was more lenient and less rigid. Naresuan was captured by the Burmese and thus raised with the Burmese royal princes, among them Crown Prince Mingyi Swa, in Pegu. Naresuan was an intelligent boy who was educated in the style of early modern warfare by the Burmese.

King Naresuan

King Naresuan in Ayutthaya (photo credit: Peerapong Prasutr, wikimedia.org)

King Naresuan memorial in Ayutthaya (photo credit: Peerapong Prasutr, wikimedia.org)

The legend of King Naresuan has been filmed and directed by HSH Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol in six parts from 2007 till today, starring Wanchana Sawatdee as Naresuan. The 6th and last part will be featured in August 2015. The first part released in 2007 deals with the Black Prince’s childhood.

When the Black Prince was a young man, the Burmese King trusted him to such extend that he gave him permission to train an army of captured Thai soldiers. The Prince affectionately called his men Naresuan’s Wild Tigers. Thus, the Wild Tigers became increasingly powerful and one day they defeated the Burmese army returning triumphantly back to Siam. Soon after this event, the Black Prince became King Naresuan of Siam thus reclaiming sovereignty. This is mainly what the second part of the film series is about.

Hence, his first major challenge was with the Burmese who were his former hosts. A giant enemy force of Burmese soldiers threatened the border between Siam and Burma. Naresuan ordered his people in the north to withdraw and burn their rice fields. The farmers thus fled to Ayutthaya and the new king turned every able-bodied man into a soldier.

To both Siam and Burma, the war was very painful. However, neither army would give in to the other. One day, King Naresuan’s war elephant was startled and hence ran madly into the enemy lines. When the dust from the elephant’s hoofs cleared, the King realized that he was facing his enemy, the Burmese crown prince.

The King was surrounded by a large force of enemy soldiers. The Burmese prince could have ordered his death but instead accepted Naresuan’s challenge to a duel. This is the Elephant Battle in which the two opponents fought with swords and spears from the back of the elephants. The legend tells that when the Burmese prince urged his elephant forward, Naresuan swung his sword and wounded the prince who soon died from the injury.

The King thus declares an armistice while the Burmese soldiers removed the body of the slain prince from the battlefield. It seemed that the King admired his opponent whom he had been forced to kill. Thus, on their battleground he built a memorial chedi to honour the Burmese prince Mingyi Swa, his childhood friend.  This fight took place on 25 January 1592 at Nong Sarai field in Suphan Buri.

Don chedi memorial, Suphanburi Province, Thailand (photo credit: Heinrich Damm, wikimedia.org)

Don chedi memorial, Suphan Buri Province, Thailand (photo credit: Heinrich Damm, wikimedia.org)

With their crown prince killed, the Burmese had no one to lead them and thus they lost heart for battle. In consequence, they withdrew their forces and for a while the Burmese and the people of Siam enjoyed a time of peace. King Naresuan died in 1605 at the age of 49.

Finally, I must confess that I’m not such a great fan of historical movies because I often find them too strenuous. In particular those movies that deal with a lot of fighting and warfare. However, is was very much interested in the story of King Naresuan, thus the movies came in useful for me 🙂

Yours, Sirinya