* Watch the 1926 Funeral of Thai King Vajiravudh (Rama VI)

I included a link and caption to this rare digitized footage of the 1926 funeral of Thai King Vajiravudh (aka Rama VI) to accompany a pair of travel advisory stories I wrote for the South China Morning Post related to King Bhumibol’s funeral rites in October 2017. The actual cremation took place on the evening of October 26, preceded by a half-dozen processions that day and by five rehearsals in the days before that. (The gist of my stories: Don’t even think that you can get close enough on October 25-27 to see anything in the vicinity of the funerary structures.)

The video caption I wrote was edited down a lot, so I don’t think readers could draw much from it. Early on in the video, that’s Vajiravudh’s brother, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), presiding over–by pulling a rope–the raising of the Royal Six-Tiered Umbrella to a spire atop the multi-story wood crematorium. That ceremony occurs a few days before the actual cremation; this year it took place October 18, with Thailand’s new king, Vajiralongkorn, residing.

The experts at the Thai Film Archive believe the scraps of film, found in 1981, were probably leftovers from a long-lost newsreel that would have been shown in movie theaters. The later parts of this footage are probably from the cremation day. You can see the large urn with the king’s body being transferred from the grounds of the Royal Palace. Actually, there were two urns, Professor Tongthong Chandransu, an expert on royal funeral ceremonies, told me. An outer gold urn encased a silver urn that contained the king’s body. The silver urn was then removed from the gold one at the time of cremation.

In the film, that urn probably was being transferred from the Grand Palace to the chariot that conveyed it to the crematorium on Sanam Luang. It was on this same great field, north of the Grand Palace and fronting Thammasat University, where Bhumibol’s ceremonies took place as well. An urn was used 67 years ago for the funeral of Bhumibol’s brother, Ananda (Rama VIII), but a western style wooden coffin was used for Bhumibol (Rama IX).

I was so surprised to the see women in sleeveless dresses in the film, ascending and descending the stairs as they paid final respects. Surely they must have been foreign women—wives of diplomats and such? As a general rule, Thai women rarely wear sleeveless garments even today. The dress code for this year’s ceremonies was quite explicit: black and grey colours, and covered arms, shoulders and legs for men and women alike.

Brothers Vajiravudh and Prajadhipok were half-brothers of  Bhumibol’s father, Mahidol, a physician who was never a king. That bit of information was deleted in the editing process, so the caption in the Post says the two kings featured in this film were Bhumibol’s “half-uncles.” Hmm, I guess technically that’s right, but sounds strange. They were also full cousins, since their mothers were sisters but I suppose that would be Too Much Information.


* The Crowning Fortune

By Susan J. Cunningham
Forbes Asia

The king of Thailand controls vast wealth. Just how vast wasn’t clear, until some sleuthing by a Bangkok academic and some new openness by the monarchy’s investment arm.

The Thai monarchy’s family fortune has always been shrouded in secrecy. Last year FORBES ASIA valued it at a conservative $5 billion. Other estimates have put it at $8 billion. But this year–using an exhaustive academic study of the monarchy’s investment arm, the Crown Property Bureau–FORBES ASIA now values the fortune at at $35 billion. This new estimate easily puts King Bhumibol Adulyadej atop our annual list of the world’s richest royals. Last year we ranked him fifth.

The bulk of the bureau’s assets lies in its vast real estate holdings, which make it the country’s largest landowner and include roughly one-third of Bangkok’s central business district. The bureau also holds a 30% stake in the Siam Cement Group and a 25% share of Siam Commercial Bank . The bureau granted an economic historian who is writing a history of the bureau, Porphant Ouyyanont, unprecedented access to its files in 2005. His paper, which was published in the U.K.’s Journal of Contemporary Asia in February, pegged the value of the bureau’s assets at $27.4 billion as of the end of 2005. Since then the assets and the baht have appreciated (though the baht has fallen recently). “Sure, [the estimate] is enormous, but it’s reasonable,” he says. “We know the price of land. We know [the market] capitalization [of the companies].” An adviser to the bureau, Aviruth Wongbuddhapitak, said by e-mail that “generally, there is no major inaccuracy” in Porphant’s paper. … more