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Thai Heroines

Thai Heroines

The Women of Legend

Text by Andrew Forbes and David Henley


Historical records in Thailand are dominated by the doings and achievements of men. Of course, this isn't unusual. The same is true for any country on the face of the earth. Perhaps men have made a greater contribution to history – bad, as well as good. Then again, most records, from China's Han Shu, through the English Domesday Book to the Persian Shahnamah, have been written by men. Under these circumstances, why should the Thai Pongsawadan prove any exception?

Yet Thai women have often played a major role in the history of this country. In recognition of this Andrew Forbes pays tribute to some of Thailand's better-known heroines – a northern monarch, two southern sisters, a north-eastern governor's wife, and from the central plains a reforming queen consort. Pictures by David Henley

North Thailand's Queen Chamadevi


According to the Lan Na chronicles, the state of Haripunjaya was founded at Lamphun by a number of holy men, Buddhist monks from Lopburi, on February 9, AD 661. [Historians are more inclined to date the event early in the 9th century]. They turned to the Buddhist ruler of Lopburi to provide them with a ruler. He sent them his daughter, Chamadevi, who arrived in Haripunjaya with a large retinue of Mons and established a dynasty that lasted until the middle of the 11th century.

Whilst Buddhism had already established a tenuous foothold in Lamphun at the time of Chamadevi's arrival, the faith was by no means secure. The surrounding area was inhabited by the indigenous Lawa people, associated in legend with head-hunting and cannibalism. Their ruler, King Viranga, demanded the hand of the beautiful Mon queen in marriage, but Chamadevi, who was determined to preserve Haripunjaya's independence, chose to dissemble rather than offend with an outright refusal.

In this manner Chamadevi was able to postpone any confrontation with Viranga until the nascent Mon Kingdom was better prepared for war. When, eventually, the Lawa King became angered by Chamadevi's delaying tactics he attacked the city, only to be driven back by the queen's elephant – a supernatural beast, black and purple in colour, with green tusks.

Despite this defeat, Viranga didn't give up. Many legends and tales are told in the north of his continuing attempts to possess the queen, and of Chamadevi's various subterfuges by which both she, and her kingdom, remained independent. Eventually Viranga died, with his desire to dominate the new Buddhist city-state unattained. With his death, the symbol of Lawa national unity passed away. Very soon those Lawa who lived on the plain in the vicinity of Lamphun became assimilated, accepting Buddhism and many facets of Mon culture, finally becoming loyal subjects of The Mon Queen and her descendants.

To this day Chamadevi is honoured by the people of Lamphun and the north as the warrior-queen who founded their city, secured the position of Buddhism in the north, and through a mixture of courage and guile tamed the fierce Lawa and made them her allies.

South Thailand's Khun Chan and Khun Muk

Rama I's newly-established Chakri dynasty met its first great test in the massive Burmese invasion of 1785. King Bodawhpaya of Burma (1781–1819) sent more than a hundred thousand troops in five armies against Siam. The first of these was sent against southern Thailand. In February and March 1785, this Burmese army enjoyed spectacular success, taking most cities on both sides of the peninsula from Chumphon south with little resistance until they were halted by a vigorous defence at Thalang, Phuket Island.

Rescue from the Burmese came in the shape of two Thalang sisters, the daughters of the deceased governor. They were called Chan ("Date Plum") and Muk ("Pearl"). They summoned all the able townsfolk to drive out the Burmese. As the Burmese clearly outnumbered the defenders, this was no easy task. But what they lacked in numbers the people of Thalang made up for in "war psychology".

In order to deceive the Burmese as to their real numbers, Chan and Muk organised all girls and women to dress as men, thus creating the illusion of a sizeable fighting force. Furthermore, the defenders were ordered to make a permanent shuffling noise, akin to that of marching troops. All this was designed to mislead the Burmese and dissuade them from attacking.

The defenders were gathered in two makeshift army quarters. One, the first line of defence, was at Wat Don, a temple two kilometres west of Wat Phra Nang Sang. The other, second line of defence was at Wat Phra Nang Sang itself. As in all moments of distress, the Thais seemed magnetically drawn to the comforting presence of the Buddha. He, they felt sure, would not let them down.

Soon their faith was rewarded. The Burmese had indeed fallen for the deception, believing themselves to be faced by numerous, well-armed opponents. Unsure of their chances, they postponed their final attack, eventually delaying too long. After about a month, supplies and morale had fallen to an all time low. Now the time had come for the defenders to turn the tide. They attacked the Burmese encampment, hardly meeting any resistance. After a violent, one-sided battle four hundred Burmese lay dead, the remainder fleeing in panic back to the north.

In recognition of their bravery, Chan and Muk were later granted royal titles. The former was named Thepkassatri, or "Angelic Queen", and the latter became Si Sunthorn, or "Goddess of Beauty". Both were turned into folk heroines and to this very day they are honoured as the guardian spirits of Phuket. On a traffic island in the aptly named Thepkassastri Road in Thalang, the much-venerated Heroines' Monument depicts the two Thai girls, defiantly brandishing their swords towards anyone who dares to harm Phuket.

North-East Thailand's Thao Suranari

Khunying Mo was the wife of the deputy governor of Nakhon Ratchasima, or Khorat, during the first years of Rama III's reign (1824–51). In 1827 Chao Anuvong, then ruler of Vientiane and a tributary and ally of Rama III, rebelled against his former friend because he felt he was not being accorded sufficient honours. Anu was, in addition, an ambitious ruler, and being misinformed of an imminent British attack on Siam, felt that the time was ripe for a swift march on Bangkok.

In January, 1827, Lao troops crossed the Mekhong at Vientiane and Champassak. They advanced swiftly across Thailand's arid Tung kula rong hai or "Plain of Tears" to the gates of Khorat. The city was taken with a mixture of guile and force, for the Lao forces cunningly claimed to be rushing to defend Bangkok against British attack. By late February the attacking armies had reached Saraburi, where they were finally halted by the Thais.

Meanwhile, in Khorat, the invading army rounded up the local population and sent them eastwards for resettlement in Laos. During the march, the male prisoners were kept in close captivity, but the women were instructed to act as menials, serving the Lao soldiers their meals and 'generally attending to their needs at night'. This latter was to prove the Laos undoing, for one of the captive women was Mo, the wife of the deputy governor.

Mo arranged with her fellow women captives to encourage the Laos in a drunken revel. When festivities were at their height, she slipped away and released the male prisoners who made short work of their drunken foes. Two thousand of the invaders were reportedly slain, and within three months Chao Anu had fled to Vietnam, whilst Siamese forces were in occupation of his capital at Vientiane.

In honour of her bravery, Mo was raised to the rank of khunying. To this day she is revered by the Thai people, and especially by the people of the North-east. In Khorat there is a statue in her honour – the Thao Suranari monument. Local people visit this shrine on a daily basis, where they light incense, bedeck the khunying's statue in garlands and gold, and offer wooden elephants as a sign of respect. Most evenings traditional Isan folk songs are performed at the shrine, and in late March or early April each year a 10 day Thao Suranari Fair is held, with exhibitions and parades to honour the heroine.

Bangkok's Queen Saowapha

Queen Saowapha (1864–1919), was the chief consort of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and the mother of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) and King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) as well as seven other of King Chulalongkorn's children. A daughter of Lady Piam, the favourite wife of King Mongkut (Rama IV), Princess Saowapha was born into the Siamese royal family on January 1, 1864, when her future husband was ten years old.

In fact, three of King Mongkut's daughters by Lady Piam were to become queens of King Chulalongkorn, their half brother (as was then the custom). These were the Princesses Sunanda, Sawang, and Saowapha herself. Princess Sunanda, created Somdech Pra Nang (Her Majesty the Queen) is best remembered by the tragic fashion of her death – drowned in the Chao Phraya in 1881 on her way up river to the palace at Bang Pa-In. King Chulalongkorn was deeply stricken by her death, but took comfort in her sisters, Queen Sawang (born 1862, and mother of eight of Chulalongkorn's children) and Queen Saowapha.

Although Sawang and Saowapha remained close friends throughout their lives, and both were of the greatest importance to the King, few would deny that Saowapha was Chulalongkorn's most beloved wife and helper. She alone was raised to the rank of Supreme Queen – Somdech Pra Parama Ratchanee, a title which had not existed in Siam before. She alone was called in European languages "Her Majesty the Queen of Siam", was entitled to the Queen's Royal Standard and was received, when alone, with the National Anthem. Since that time the same titles and honours have been accorded to the "gracious and sole" consorts of the monogamous King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) and the reigning sovereign, His Majesty King Bhumibol.

Queen Saowapha is perhaps chiefly remembered for the advice and assistance she gave to King Chulalongkorn, who relied on her increasingly as his reign progressed. Indeed, so trusted and so invaluable did she become that in 1897, during King Chulalongkorn's first European tour, she was raised to the position of Regent – the first Thai Queen ever to share what was, effectively, the position of joint sovereign.

Yet in addition to this important constitutional role, Queen Saowapha was also an early champion of female rights, who worked to improve the position of wives and of women in general. Perhaps because she had so many children of her own, she was deeply committed to improving the standards of midwifery in Thailand, and in 1883 she sent four young girls to study this science in England. Subsequently, in 1897 Saowapha founded a modern college of midwifery in Bangkok. She also founded the Thai Red Cross Society, of which she was an active president for 26 years before being succeeded, at the time of her death, by her elder sister Queen Sawang.

Saowapha further built and endowed two girls schools in Bangkok and four in the provinces. She sent many students, both male and female, to pursue higher studies in Europe at her own expense, and her court was recognised as a centre for fine arts – in the words of Chula Chakrabongse, the historian of the Chakri Dynasty: 'indeed for a young girl to be attached to her was like being sent to university'.

Queen Saowapha finally passed away in 1919, beloved of and mourned by the Thai people. A unique shrine to her memory exists nearby Bangkok's Wat Rajabophit. Here, in 1913, a bronze pig was unveiled by three senior establishment figures born in the same cyclical year as Queen Saowapha – the Year of the Pig. To this day, the shrine is always bedecked with fresh flowers and offerings to the memory of a far-sighted and reforming queen.


Text by Andrew Forbes and David Henley

© CPA Media, January 2016