A KING AND THE LOVES OF HIS LIFE
A royal couple’s less well-known joint passion was gardening
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.