A royal cou­ple’s less well-known joint pas­sion was gar­den­ing

Bangkok Post - - Business - Story by MR PRUDHISAN JUM­BALA

Eighty-two years ago, on Fe­bru­ary 25, 1926, a Thai king was crowned, and at his coro­na­tion cer­e­mony he el­e­vated his only wife to the po­si­tion of Queen Con­sort. The Procla­ma­tion of In­vesti­ture gave as an im­por­tant rea­son her com­pan­ion­ship to the king ‘‘in hap­pi­ness and sor­row in a way un­sur­passed’’ over the pre­vi­ous seven years of their mar­ried life.

In his let­ter to King Va­ji­ravudh seek­ing royal per­mis­sion to marry her, that king, then Prince Pra­jad­hipok, wrote of how ac­quain­tance­ship had grown into fond­ness and love.

What did he see in her, and what did they have in com­mon? The newly opened Per­ma­nent Ex­hi­bi­tion on Queen Ramb­hai Barni of the Sev­enth Reign at the King Pra­jad­hipok Mu­seum at Phan Fa Li­lat In­ter­sec­tion at­tempts to an­swer th­ese two ques­tions. It does so in an ed­uca­tive but not dog­matic way, pro­vid­ing ev­i­dence and clues for the more in­quis­i­tive vis­i­tors to draw their own con­clu­sions.

Putting them to­gether, one can read­ily sur­mise that, apart from her beauty and her un­af­fected and gra­cious man­ner, the then prince saw in Princess Ramb­hai Barni a deeper char­ac­ter of per­se­ver­ance and res­o­lu­tion. The ex­hi­bi­tion re­lates that when she was about 10 years old, she was the only girl among her male sib­lings who suc­ceeded in swim­ming across the Chao Phraya River hold­ing on to a ba­nana trunk.

This strength of char­ac­ter and her keen sense of duty to up­hold the hon­our of the royal fam­ily, born out of an up­bring­ing in the Queen Mother’s court, stood her in good staid when she her­self be­came queen. It was sec­ond na­ture to her to have ‘‘come up trumps’’ when the king, her hus­band, sought her opin­ion dur­ing the 1932 coup that at­tempted to end the ab­so­lute monar­chy on whether to fight, flee abroad or re­turn to Bangkok from Hua Hin to face what­ever was in store for them. She un­hesi­tat­ingly chose the last course, the one the king al­ready had in mind.

A year later, dur­ing the so-called Boworadet Re­bel­lion, she coura­geously faced the stormy sea as she ac­com­pa­nied him in a small boat from Hua Hin to Songkhla, a jour­ney that took more than two days. The voy­age was un­der­taken so that the monarch, who dis­ap­proved of vi­o­lence, could dis­tance him­self from the bel­liger­ents on both sides. In­deed, Queen Ramb­hai Barni proved her­self wor­thy of the king’s ear­lier de­ci­sion to choose her as his soul mate.

On the sec­ond ques­tion of what they en­joyed in com­mon, the ex­hi­bi­tion is less ex­plicit. Glean­ing the in­for­ma­tion pro­vided and mak­ing fur­ther en­quiries, it be­comes clear that sport was one. Well known is the fact that they had been avidly play­ing golf and ten­nis to­gether since the ear­li­est days of their mar­riage.

Less recog­nised is their com­mon pas­sion for gar­den­ing, a topic which de­serves elab­o­ra­tion.

First, let us re­call that the lyrics of King Pra­jad­hipok’s first Thai classical mu­sic com­po­si­tion, Ra­tri Pradab Dao, tell of a ro­mance in a gar­den of scented flow­ers on a moon­lit night. That work is thus com­monly thought to re­fer to his queen who, as a young home­maker, was fond of grow­ing flow­ers and ar­rang­ing them to adorn their first home, Sukho­daya Palace. The prince, on his part, was proud to re­late that the lawn was widely re­garded as the best man­i­cured in town.

When the king built a sea­side res­i­dence at Hua Hin for his con­sort, he chose to call it Suan Klai Kangvol, pre­fer­ring to call it a gar­den (the word ‘‘suan’’ means gar­den) rather than a palace. It is said that he mused about rais­ing dairy cows there. His in­ter­ests thus ex­tended be­yond gar­den­ing. Once the royal cou­ple jour­neyed by boat from the re­sort to visit Prince Sithiporn Kri­takara’s fa­mous melon farm at Bang Berd fur­ther south. The king is also on record as hav­ing fi­nan­cially sup­ported that prince’s Kasikorn (Agri­cul­ture) mag­a­zine and as hav­ing sought to en­cour­age tech­no­log­i­cal im­prove­ments in agri­cul­ture. Among the im­por­tant ac­tiv­i­ties Their Majesties un­der­took on their vis­its to Java and Europe were lengthy vis­its to farms of var­i­ous types, rub­ber plan­ta­tions, agri­cul­tural sta­tions and mu­se­ums, as well as botanic gar­dens. This in­di­cated their per­sonal in­ter­est as much as the king’s con­cern to bring use­ful knowl­edge to his peo­ple.

How­ever, they were not able to pur­sue their joint pas­sion for gar­den­ing to the full un­til the king had ab­di­cated in March 1935 while in Eng­land. The ex­hi­bi­tion brings vividly to mind what the cou­ple en­joyed to­gether at their suc­ces­sion of res­i­dences there, which di­min­ished in size the fur­ther the king was from the throne. A sec­tion cre­ates a re­splen­dent English gar­den with a variety of flow­ers, tex­tile to be sure, placed in pro­fu­sion against a back­drop of a wood. Vis­i­tors might for a mo­ment think that they were tak­ing an af­ter­noon walk in the English coun­try­side.

MR Pim­sai Am­ranand, a niece of the queen and au­thor of Gar­den­ing in Bangkok, de­scribed their sec­ond res­i­dence in Sur­rey in her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. Grass ter­races sloped down from the Vic­to­rian man­sion to a vast lawn at the bot­tom of which were two ten­nis courts, a for­mal rose gar­den, a walled veg­etable gar­den, green­houses and an or­chard of fruit trees, be­yond which was a meadow of daf­fodils, blue­bells and prim­roses.

There, and at Vane Court, their next res­i­dence, in Bid­den­den, Kent, the king grew car­na­tions in the green­house, and the queen, who rou­tinely tended the gar­den, picked them for flower ar­range­ments. Her dress­ing room con­veyed a fem­i­nine at­mos­phere and was adorned with fra­grant sweet pea flow­ers in pas­tel shades. The vil­lagers of Bid­den­den re­garded the for­mer Si­amese King as ‘‘the squire’’ and in­vited him and his lady to open flower shows and gymkhanas. They be­lieved that the cou­ple loved the tran­quil life in Eng­land, en­joy­ing the coun­try­side while walk­ing their dogs, bi­cy­cling to shop in the vil­lage and watch­ing ducks and fish swim­ming in their pond at home.

Alas, tran­quil­lity and peace were in­ter­rupted by the ad­vent of the Sec­ond World War, and the royal cou­ple saw fit to move to a rented house in Vir­ginia Wa­ter, Sur­rey, for Vane Court was about to be req­ui­si­tioned for war pur­poses. Yet Comp­ton House was in dan­ger of Ger­man bomb at­tacks. So Their Majesties so­journed to North Devon and North Wales for a time un­til the king’s de­te­ri­o­rat­ing health forced them to move back.

On May 30, 1941, the king woke up early and said to his beloved, ‘‘I feel much bet­ter to­day. Do go to Vane Court and bring back some flow­ers.’’

Near Maid­stone, on her way there, the queen was in­ter­cepted by a po­lice­man who told her that the king had passed away of a heart at­tack, peace­fully in his bed.

Thus, the king’s last words to his beloved were about what bound them: Flow­ers and gar­den­ing.

Dur­ing the rest of the war, the queen went up to Lon­don twice a week to help pre­pare med­i­cal pro­vi­sions. When the war was over, her trou­bles were not. Part of Comp­ton House caught fire, ne­ces­si­tat­ing re­pairs and her mov­ing out. How­ever, she went there daily to tend to her gar­den.

It should come as no sur­prise to learn that when Queen Ramb­hai Barni fi­nally re­turned home to Thai­land in 1949 she sought a rural abode and bought a tract of land in a part of Chan­thaburi that was still re­mote and wild. She named it sim­ply Suan Ban Kaew and en­dured the early days there in a shack with no elec­tric­ity and run­ning wa­ter. She mounted the trac­tor, sowed the rice and har­vested it, as well as picked the peanuts grown to put nitro­gen into the soil. Even­tu­ally, the bush was turned into an or­chard. Veg­eta­bles and fruit were the main pro­duce, not so much for sale but for self-suf­fi­ciency. Cat­tle was also raised, not for meat but to keep the grass down and for mak­ing ma­nure. A sec­tion of the ex­hi­bi­tion de­picts the queen with all the egg-lay­ing hens in a chicken coop.

Here, some­thing from the his­tory of the queen’s ma­ter­nal grand­par­ents is in­struc­tive, though prob­a­bly co­in­ci­den­tal. To­wards the end of the fifth reign, long be­fore Prince Sithiporn did, Prince Ga­gananga and his wife, Mom Sun, also carved out an or­chard in the wild at Nong Mon in Chon Buri where they brought in co­conut seedlings from Chumpon fur­ther south and ex­per­i­mented with the breed­ing of cat­tle from Rus­sia so as to pass on the knowl­edge so gained to small­hold­ing vil­lagers. How­ever, the prince’s fail­ing health pre­cluded them from car­ry­ing on the ef­fort.

It is thus un­canny that their grand­daugh­ter also should have ex­plored ways of mak­ing hor­ti­cul­tural and an­i­mal hus­bandry im­prove­ments that could be of ben­e­fit to the lo­cal peo­ple. Prince Sithiporn lent a help­ing hand for a time at Suan Ban Kaew, pass­ing on his knowl­edge of melon grow­ing.

How­ever, the queen’s ac­tiv­i­ties were not con­fined to th­ese pur­suits. She also pur­pose­fully learned from lo­cal ar­ti­sans how to weave rush mats with a view to mak­ing im­prove­ments in colour dye­ing and ex­tend­ing their uses be­yond as mats for sit­ting on. She even­tu­ally suc­ceeded in es­tab­lish­ing her own work­shop, bring­ing in lo­cal vil­lagers to work in it, mak­ing the mats colour fast and in pas­tel shades and adding tiny pikul flower de­signs and other art items by draw­ing on the em­broi­dery skills she learned at the royal court in her youth. She also had the mat­ting ma­te­rial made into place mats, re­cep­ta­cles and mod­ern hand­bags which she helped to mar­ket by us­ing them her­self. Ev­ery day, she would spend much time with the weavers en­cour­ag­ing them to do bet­ter. ‘‘When we went wrong, she did not scold us. In­stead, she smiled and said it was an un­usual de­sign. Then she made sug­ges­tions,’’ rem­i­nisced one weaver who worked there at the time.

Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, the queen paid trib­ute to the or­di­nary vil­lagers’ labour and skill by hav­ing de­picted on the prod­uct la­bels the mo­tif of a vil­lager car­ry­ing a pole and bas­kets and the English let­ter­ing ‘‘SBK The Peas­ant In­dus­tries’’ and the Thai char­ac­ters SoBoKo Ut­sa­hakam Chaoban. In­come from the mat prod­ucts kept the farm go­ing.

De­spite be­ing busy tak­ing part in all th­ese ac­tiv­i­ties, the Queen al­ways al­lot­ted time ev­ery day to plant, wa­ter, fer­tilise and tend to the flow­er­ing trees, shrubs and bulbs in her private gar­den, the de­sign of which some­what im­i­tated that in Vane Court in hav­ing an arched bridge over a pond flanked by rock gar­dens. It, and her mod­est abode, can still be vis­ited. They are in the grounds of Ramb­hai Barni Ra­jab­hat Univer­sity in Chan­thaburi, named af­ter her for she sold Suan Ban Kaew to the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion for a mod­er­ate sum when she left it in 1969 to live the rest of her ad­vanced years at Sukho­daya Palace in Bangkok un­til she passed away there in 1984 at the age of nearly 80.

Queen Ramb­hai Barni not only left a be­quest to ed­u­ca­tion but also did much to pro­mote Chan­thaburi Pro­vin­cial Hospi­tal while liv­ing there and af­ter­wards. Yet, she ded­i­cated all her char­i­ta­ble deeds to the late King Pra­jad­hipok. Her con­stancy to him and her ded­i­ca­tion to his ser­vice did not end with his pass­ing. Even though she her­self has left us, her very own Pra­jad­hipok-Ramb­hai Barni Foun­da­tion and the King Pra­jad­hipok and Queen Ramb­hai Barni Me­mo­rial Foun­da­tion, es­tab­lished by the Sec­re­tariat of the Par­lia­ment, con­tinue to carry on their char­i­ta­ble in­ten­tions. More­over, the King Pra­jad­hipok Mu­seum, which be­gan with a col­lec­tion of the late king’s per­sonal items the late queen gave to the sec­re­tariat, uses pub­lic funds to dis­sem­i­nate knowl­edge about their late majesties and the sev­enth reign. It is open ev­ery day ex­cept Mon­days, 9am to 4pm; tel: 02-280-3414.

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