A century's leap to Siam
By Manote Tripathi
The Nation on sunday
Published on October 24, 2010

A new commemorative book lets us time-travel to the days of King Rama V

A nation teeters on the cusp of modernity in the rarely seen photos from the Fifth Reign amassed in the new bilingual book "Siam: Days of Glory - 19th-Century Photographs of Thailand".
Pictures of King Chulalongkorn donning a seven-kilogram ceremonial headdress - symbolic of the burden of his duty - and the ladies of the royal court in their fashionable couture are among the marvels that businessman and amateur historian Athada Khoman culled from the National Archives for his elaborate book.

Her Royal Highness Princess Soamsawali helped launch the collection last week as part of the commemorations for the centenary of Chulalongkorn's death.

"My background is in finance and marketing, but I've always been fascinated by what happened during the Fifth Reign," says Athada, unveiling images that have never before been published.

The book is also a tribute to Athada's forebears, especially the Bunnag family, which played a significant role during the reign of King Rama V in administration and foreign relations.

Coinciding with the book's appearance is a photo exhibition of the same name, which includes pictures from private collections never displayed in public before.

Many appeared in an album compiled for Crown Prince Maha Vajirunhis, a son of Chulalongkorn and Queen Savang Vadhana who died prematurely in 1895.

As well as photos of the royal family and ceremonies, temples and palaces, there are striking images of contemporary fashion, transportation, daily life along the Chao Phraya River and the Kingdom's ethnic diversity.

There are photos of the diplomats of the day, like Pae Bunnag, who was formally called Phraya Sripipat Rattana Rachakosa Thipbodi, of princesses studying in Europe and Rama V's visits there to see Russia's Tsar Nicholas II, Britain's King Edward VII and Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II.

"Photo books like this are necessary for educating Thai society, which somehow lacks a sense of continuum," Anake Nawigamune said during a seminar following the book launch.

Agreeing with him were fellow speakers Bhujjong Chandavij, an historian, and Juthatip Angsusing of the National Archives.

French bishop Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix introduced photography to Siam in 1845, during the reign of Rama III, but the King declined to be captured on film.

Pallegoix had better luck with his successor, Mongkut, photographing Rama IV and inspiring Siamese to take up the camera as well.

King Chulalongkorn embraced Western technology, and during his reign many foreign photographers came to Siam. German Gustave Richard Lambert, who had a successful studio in Singapore, travelled the region and took hundreds of pictures in Siam.

When Lambert opened a studio in Bangkok in 1880, he was appointed the court's official photographer. His images of the royal family stand out in Athada's book, such as Rama V in full regalia and his hefty headdress, and relaxing at Bang Pa-in Palace in Ayutthaya.

Unfortunately, many of the old photos in the National Archives bear no accreditation, Juthatip noted, so Lambert might be responsible for even more of the pictures on view.

He is believed to have taken a truly moving picture of Chulalongkorn being carried to Chonburi in an ox cart, with a soldier holding a parasol to shade him. White-clad bodyguards keep watch as another cart follows, filled with children - probably the King's own.

"The shot is still very clear," Bhujjong commented.

The monarch even took some of the photos himself, including a studio group shot of all of his 21 daughters.

"He took the picture so he could sell it to his daughters for Bt20 - each daughter had to contribute at least Bt1 - this is one of the ways he raised money to build Wat Benjamaborphit!" Anake said.

Beyond the palace walls, there are many interesting photos of bygone times.

The Golden Mount is seen, with a staircase so steep that, according to Anake, a drunk was once killed when he tumbled down the steps.

Lambert took a fascinating shot of a postman in elaborate uniform, and others of Chinese healers and the Prince Theatre, Bangkok's first Western-style playhouse, owned by Chaophraya Mahinthara Sakdithammrong.

"The theatre was built for Bangkok's centenary," Anake explained. "It was quite famous because the founder's children performed in many European cities."

And then there are the images of life on the houseboats on Klong Bangkok Noi. The houseboats are long gone, of course.

history lives

"Siam: Days of Glory" costs Bt2,310 at Kinokuniya, Asia Books, Nai-in and B2S.

Part of the proceeds goes to the Princess Pa Foundation and the Thai Red Cross Society for flood relief.

Find out more from Siam Renaissance at (02) 633 5533 or (081) 828 1466, e-mail lok_homan@hotmail.com or visit www.Siam-Renaissance.com.

THE NATION