King Rama VI was born to King Chulalongkorn and Queen Saovabha on 1 January 1880. He was King Chulalongkorn’s 29th son and the first Chakri Heir Apparent to ascend to the throne with full support of the Royal Family, ministers, senior officials, and the Thai people at large. He was just under 30 and had charming looks and a natural dignity.
King Rama VI’s coronation (November 11, 1911) saw the biggest gathering of European royalty in Asia (Prince Fushimi of Japan, Prince of the then most powerful Asian nation, also attended). He chose the reigning title of Pra Mongkut Klao, as King Mongkut (King Rama IV) was fond of the European ways and wanted there to be a King Monkut II. However, he preferred to call himself King Rama VI, and also changed the names of his predecessors to Rama. At the close of the coronation festivities, the foreign royals were taken to the countryside with Prince Chakrabongse and Mom Catherine as their guides, resulting in the construction of the seaside resorts of Hua Hin.
Queen Suvadhana was born on 15 April 1906 as Khrueakaeo Abhayavongsa to Lord Abhayabhupesa (Lueam Abhayavongsa) and Ms. Lek Bunnag.
In 1924, Khrueakaeo performed with King Rama VI in a play that the King himself wrote, called Phra Ruang. The play was performed during the King’s first visit to Mrigadayavan Palace and to celebrate the then Supreme Queen Indrasakdi Sachi’s birthday. He later gave Khrueakaeo a new name, Suvadhana. Prior to their marriage, King Rama VI was twice engaged, and had two other marriages.
In October 1924, Suvadhana was expecting a child of the King’s, and was therefore created a junior queen, Pra Nang Suvadhana.
Public Health: In 1912, there was severe outbreak of smallpox, and the distressed King ordered immediate action to suppress the disease. The King contributed a large sum from the Privy Purse towards the heavy expenses for vaccination and the Ministries of Interior and Local Government decided to use persuasion rather than compulsion to get people to be vaccinated. The campaign was successful and vaccination became universally popular. Eventually, smallpox was almost entirely eliminated.
Education: King Rama VI used the huge surplus of money subscribed for King Chulalongkorn’s equestrian statue and gave a large plot of Privy Purse land to found Chulalongkorn University. He also founded the Royal Pages School (which became known as Vajiravudh College after his death) based on English public schools. He also later enacted a law requiring compulsory and free primary education.
Wild Tiger Corps: To back Siam’s political neutrality, it needed sufficient force to maintain internal order, thereby preventing European powers from obtaining easy conquests under the guise of “police actions”. King Rama VI considered the armed force the best rallying point for Thai nationalism and unity. He funded the Territorial Army (modelled after the British Territorial Army) from his Privy Purse, to supplement the Regular army. He organised a new force under his own direct commend independent of the Army and the Ministry of Defence, called the Wild Tiger Corps (after King Naresuan’s guerillas, the Wild Tigers and Peeping Cats). In addition to provincial regiments, he also formed the Wild Tiger Brigade of Guards, raised among his courtiers.
The Wild Tiger flourished until the end of King Rama VI’s reign, ceasing in the reign of King Prajadhipok, but was never popular amongst the people. However, the youth branch, the Tiger Cubs, was recognised by the World Organisation as true Boy Scouts and remain to this day.
Sports: King Rama VI had an English outlook and wanted Thais to play football, as it was suitable in this climate. Clubs and leagues were formed with English residents as coaches. Increasingly, football became popular in Thailand.
Fashion: One of the King’s instantly popular and lasting reforms was encouraging women (in writing) to wear their hair long and dress in skirts like the Laotian women. At that time, Thai women wore their hair almost as short as men and dressed in the “plus-fours.” Soon, the fashion changed to that of Western styles.
Literature/Theatre: King Rama VI loved literature and he is recognised as one of the major Thai poets of his day. His style was academic and usually lacked deep feelings, apart from patriotic songs. He was an admirer of Shakespeare’s works and translated three of his plays. He also wrote/translated from English and French nearly one hundred plays, and even acted in his plays himself with his company of amateurs, donating the proceeds to charities.
Social: In 1916, King Rama VI enacted a law that required all families to have surnames. The King, princes, and high officials were requested by countless families to invent surnames, so he established a department to help him.
Finances: In the first year of his reign, the figures showed the revenue at 63.5 million bahts against an expenditure of 59 millions, resulting in a surplus of 4.5 million bahts. The second year showed a deficit of 2.5 million due to the King’s Coronation (which costed over 3 million) and poor harvest caused by a partial drought. However, this was easily covered by the reserves from King Rama V’s reign. By 1913, the situation returned to normal and there was a surplus of nearly 3.25 million. The country’s exports exceeded imports by about 25 million.
Bank: In 1912, King Rama VI found the Treasury Savings Bank, which grew increasingly larger in the number of deposits from year to year.
Gambling Houses: King Rama VI was a liberal idealist, but without heavy direct taxes, the Government had to derive income from duties paid by Chinese gambling houses and from the sale of Government-owned opium purchased from abroad. Convinced of their evils, the King wanted to abolish both sources of State income. However, the Minister of Finance and his English adviser stated that it would not be possible until other sources of revenue could replace them. Nevertheless, by 1917, all gambling houses were closed down.
In November, 1925, King Rama VI became critically ill. As the illness became more serious, Queen Suvadhana gave birth to a girl. Knowing that his daughter could not inherit the throne, he murmured: “It’s just as well.” The King finally passed away on 26th November. He was 43 years, 9 months, and 25 days old and had reigned for just over 15 years.