Chulalongkorn Day (October 23): A Brief History of the Thai Public Holiday

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Published: October 22, 2017

Updated for Chulalongkorn Day 2017

This year Chulalongkorn Day (23 October 2017) falls in the same week as the funeral of the late King Bhumibol (Rama 9) of Thailand. It is therefore a very important and historic week week in Thailand. 

Thailand usually enjoys sixteen public holidays each year, and more are often declared by the government. Among these are a mix of religious holidays and commemorations for past monarchs and historical events. People employed in different sectors in Thailand – from private company employees to civil servants to bank staff – are entitled to a different combination of holidays; for example, some holidays taken by government employees are not observed by banks.

Statue of King Chulalongkorn and King Rama VI at Chulalongkorn University (Photo by Paul Trafford)

Chulalongkorn Day, celebrated annually on 23 October and usually observed by all companies and organisations, commemorates the passing of King Chulalongkorn, who died on this day in 1910. King Chulalongkorn, or King Rama V, was the fifth monarch from the Chakri dynasty of which the current King Bhumibol is the ninth ruler. At the age of 57, and having ruled what was then Siam for 42 years since ascending the throne at the age of 15, he was one of the Kingdom’s most revered heads of state.

Known as the country’s modernising monarch, the abolition of slavery in Thailand is considered among his greatest achievements. Prior to this, as much as a third of the Thai population is said to have been enslaved, and children were frequently born into a system of entrenched slavery that was difficult to escape. He is also credited with having introduced other social and political reforms, including the creation of the country’s modern administrative structure into provinces and districts. Under King Chulalongkorn’s reign Thailand switched from the lunar calendar to the Gregorian calendar used in the west – though the country continues to use the Buddhist year, which is 543 years ahead of the western year, so 2014 becomes 2557.

The King Rama V Equestrian Monument in Dusit (Photo by dsin_travel)

The first postal service and railway route, the latter from Bangkok to Ayutthaya, were also introduced during his rule. On a cultural note, King Chulalongkorn is remembered for working to ensure religious freedom for those of other faiths in predominantly Buddhist Siam. He is said to have walked in disguise among the ordinary Siamese people in order to get a flavour of what life was like for them – in so doing, he came to be known for his compassion as the ‘Great Beloved King’ (Phra Piya Maharat). Having been taught about western customs and the English language by a mix of Thai and European tutors, he was the first Thai monarch to visit Europe and used his influence to maintain Thailand’s independence at a time of increased European colonialism in the region.

Chulalongkorn University was founded in honour of King Rama V (Photo by Chris Brown)

Nowadays the most visible daily memorial to the King is his appearance on the reverse of the 100 baht banknote, while the prestigious Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok was also named after him when it was founded seven years after his death and incorporated the civil service training school he had developed. He was portrayed in the Hollywood film The King and I, the storyline of which centred on his father, King Mongkut. Many Thai businesses hang portraits of King Chulalongkorn, alongside his grandson the current King Bhumibol, in the hope of good fortune.

Memorials around Thailand to King Chulalongkorn become the focus of events on Chulalongkorn Day, when offerings are made in his honour. In Bangkok this is best observed at the most well known of the King Chulalongkorn memorials, the equestrian statue of the King on horseback at the front of the Ananta Samakhom throne hall in the capital’s Dusit district. The Dusit area is itself recognisable for the wide, tree-lined boulevards inspired by King Chulalongkorn’s overseas travels. Here on Chulalongkorn Day, as well as garlands being hung on the statue, Thai flags and royal emblems are flown alongside it.

To learn more about Thai history and culture come on a Bangkok Tour with us.

Photos from top by Paul Trafford, dsin_travel and Chris Brown.

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