16.3.12

I Meet the Second King of Siam

Friday, 4 December 1863 - Bangkok, Siam

My word, but the politics in Siam can get very complicated. Apparently Siam currently has two kings! Siam also has a Vice King known by the title “Front Palace,” so called because of the second palace built in front of the Grand Palace. The Vice King is similar to the heir apparent, except with more power.

The concept is suppose to come from India. It first started in Siam in 1448 when Trailokanat, the king of Sukhothai, was also crowned as the king of Ayutthaya, which united the two kingdoms. Trailokanat moved to Ayutthaya and let his son “rule” Pitsanulok, in the Kingdom of Sukhothai as a Vice King. Later rulers built a palace in front of theirs for the heir to stay in when visiting Ayutthaya, thus the title “Front Palace.”

Front Palace - Home of the Vice King
When the capital was moved to Bangkok, the concept of Vice King was still continued by the Ramas of the Chakri Dynasty. Again a palace was built in front of the king’s grand palace for the Vice King. Most Chakri Vice King’s were brothers, uncles or cousins who never outlived the king and thus never took the throne.

One Vice King however was crowned--while the first King still lived! King Mongkut not only made his younger brother, Pinklao, Vice-King, but crowned him as the Second King with honors and titles equal to his own!

Pinklao was born four years after his brother Mongkut, so would have been sixteen when his father died and his thirty-seven-year-old half-brother Jessadabodindra was made king by the ministers. While Mongkut became a monk, Pinklao became part of the court and was given the tile of Krom Khun.

When King Jessadobodindra died, Pinklao was heir presumptive to the throne. Mongkut’s claim was stronger. However, Mongkut made his little brother Vice King, then did something unprecedented--he crowned his brother Second King.

Legend says Mongkut did so because his astrological calculations showed Pinklao also held the fate to become a king. Some Westerners think Mongkut did it so his brother wouldn’t fight him for the throne, except history shows their relationship was always amiable. Personally I think one motivation was that Pinklao knew Siam politics and government well, and would prove an asset to the former monk.

King Pinklao
Pinklao has indeed been an asset. His English is actually better than Mongkut’s. He played a great role in the negotiations with the British, who know him as “Second King.” Pinklao also has an interest in modern warfare. He has his own army, which he drills European style, and his own navy with several modern ships. No vice king ever had as much power as Pinklao and he will never abuse Mongkut’s trust.

Pinklao will die two years before Mongkut, so he never became First King. After Mongkut’s death, Pinklao’s son Vichaichan will be appointed Vice-King by the Royal Council while Chulalongkorn is still a teenager and under the thumb of a regeant. Before that only the king was allowed to appoint the Vice King. Perhaps that is why Vichaichan’s relationship with King Chulalongkorn was not like their fathers, Mongkut and Pinklao. There was a power struggle and the Vice-King will be stripped of his powers. After Vichaichan died, the title was abolished and replaced with an heir apparent Crown Prince, like in European monarchies. As for the Front Palace itself, it will someday become the Bangkok National Museum.

King Pinklao will be remembered fondly. Navy ships and a naval hospital will be named in his honor because of his part in modernizing the Thai Navy. In 1973 a bridge over the Chao Phraya River will also be named after him, as well as the surrounding district. (Which is why malls and shops now bear Pinklao’s name.)

HTMS Pinklao of the Royal Thai Navy (circa 2000)
I was able to speak with King Pinklao. He was very busy but I was able to at least record a short conversation. His English really is excellent. He had only nice things to say about his big brother and seemed to genuinely like him. I can see why Mongkut assured Siam that Pinklao should be respected with equal honor to his own. I think it also says something about King Mongkut’s humility and wisdom.

A video remembrance of King Pinklao

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