The life, times and vastly different residences of Rama VII are on view in a photo exhibit, ‘At Home with King Prajadhipok’
Royal-watchers have a rare chance now through August to delve into the often grand, often moving lives of Their Majesties King Prajadhipok and Queen Rambai Barni.
The King Prajadhipok Museum is exhibiting old and uncommon photos of the seven residences occupied by Rama VII – the last absolute monarch of Siam – in “At Home with King Prajadhipok”, until August 31.
Sukhothai Palace on Samsen Road, a place of great warmth and tranquillity, was where the newlyweds first lived following their wedding in 1918.
Here Rambai Barni, still a princess at the time, loved tending to and arranging flowers, and the palace’s garden was dubbed the most beautiful in Bangkok.
A lot of the King’s free time was devoted to storytelling, a source of immense delight for the children under his care. Among his favourite tales were Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan” stories, with their endearing appeal about the relationship between man and nature. It wasn’t uncommon for the monarch to insert his own morals and occasional twists to enlighten and amuse his young listeners.
When Prajadhipok ascended the throne as the seventh King of the Chakri dynasty in 1925, Their Majesties moved to the Dusit Palace’s Ambhara Mansion.
Leisure time here was spent playing golf, tennis and squash, as well as traditional musical instruments. His Majesty was known for his love of the arts and composed a number of songs here.
But Prajadhipok’s favourite hobby was filmmaking. He made movies for both entertainment and documentary purposes, among them an acclaimed work called “Ambhara”, after his home. The King would screen his own and foreign films for courtiers every Wednesday and Saturday night.
When the country’s government shifted from one of absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy in 1932, the King decided to move back to Sukhothai Palace, never to return to Ambhara Mansion.
Like other rules before and since, Rama VII and the Queen enjoyed trips to the beach, and it was this monarch who, after his coronation, bought land with his own money in Hua Hin to build a summer retreat.
He called it the Klai Klang Wol Garden, and today, as Klai Kang Wol Palace, it remains the present King and Queen’s preferred seaside getaway.
To celebrate the Hua Hin residence’s completion, Prajadhipok organised a small party where guests were entertained by a performance called “Review Klai Kang Wol”, which he directed himself.
It was here, too, that the King acceded – 72 years ago next Thursday – to popular demand for a constitutional monarchy, a democratic revolution that prompted the King and Queen to leave for England.
There they rented Knowle House in Surrey, outside London, as their residence and watched from afar as the fledgling Siamese democracy faltered, and it was there, on March 2, 1934, that His Majesty announced his abdication.
Cloistered Knowle House proved ill-suited for the King’s health, so the couple moved to a place called Glen Pammant in Surrey’s Virginia Water, a much smaller mansion but with more area to walk and exercise.
It was a far lonelier existence than either was accustomed to, Prajadhipok’s abdication having discouraged visits from other Siamese living in England. There were fewer courtiers as well.
After two years at Glen Pammant, Prajadhipok sold up and bought the even smaller Vane Court in Biddenden, Kent, a white manse with a small garden and swimming pool. The couple lived easily, taking long walks with Sam, their Airedale dog, and riding their bicycles to the village shops.
In 1938, with World War II looming, Pragadhipok economised further, moving temporarily into a smaller estate not far from Glen Pammant, and when England declared war a year later, they moved to yet another home, Compton House in the village of Wentworth in Virginia Water.
With German bombers overhead in 1940, they again shifted temporarily, first to a small rented house in Devon and then to the Lake Vyrwny Hotel in north Wales.
It was at the hotel that Prajadhipok, already debilitated by a chronic shortage of breath, suffered a heart attack. The couple returned to Compton House, the former monarch saying he preferred to die there.
And so he did, on May 30, 1941, his heart failed. At his cremation ceremony at Golders Green in north London, there were neither Buddhist monks nor traditional Thai music, only his favourite passage from Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. On hand were his beloved wife and a few close relatives.
Rambai Barni remained at Compton House until 1949, when Prajadhipok’s ashes were brought home to Bangkok.
The museum is presenting two free public discussions to coincide with the exhibition. The first, on the art and architecture of the King’s homes, will take place on June 26 from 1.30 to 4pm.
The second, on the photography of his time, is set for July 24, also from 1.30 to 4pm.
“At Home with King Prajadhipok” is open Tuesday to Sunday from 9am to 4pm. Weekday admission is Bt40 for adults, free for students, monks and the disabled. There is no charge on weekends.
The King Prajadhipok Museum is in the Registered Heritage Building, Phan Fah Lilat Bridge, Lanluang Road.
For more information, call (02) 280 3413-4.