During the 19th Century, one of the few Asian countries that had avoided
the onslaught of Christianity and Colonism brought about by Western invaders
is Siam, now called Thailand, and credit must be given to King Mongkut of Rama
IV who skillfully steered his people into the modern era.
Made famous by Hollywood in the movie the King and I, the real King Mongkut was not an arrogant, stubborn and ignorant barbarian king as portraited by Yul Bryner. (I think Chow Yun Fat does a better job of acting in Anna and the King, but I have not seen the new movie yet). He was born on October 18, 1804 as the second son to King Rama II. As a young prince, he was taught literature, poetry, Buddhism, as well as the art of warfare. At 12, he was assigned to take charge of the armed forces of his country.
Following Thai tradition, the young prince was ordained as a Buddhist Monk when he was at the age of 14, but, while he was serving his ordination, he father passed away and his brother Prince Chesdabodin was elected as the next King. Mongkut had no choice but to continue his monkhood to dedicate his time and effort to Buddhism for the next 27 years.
It was during these 27 years that Prince Mongkut meet his people from all walks of life, including the poor and the rich, his own citizens (mostly Buddhists) and foreigners (mostly Christian Missionaries). From the foreigners, he got a chance to learn several foreign langauges as well as science, technology and Christianity.
In 1851, King Nagnkla or Rama III died and finally, Mongkut was elected as King of Siam. His rule was completely different from the previous Kings. He was friendly to the West, yet skillfully avoid being a mere appendage of Western countries. It was during this period that he hired Christian missionaries to teach English to his 39 wives and 82 children.
The women and kids soon got bored with the Bible and preaching that came as a bonus to the teachings, and so King Mongkut fired the missionaries and hired a British teacher, Anna Leonowens, from Singapore as his English Governess instead. After her employment contract ended, Anna turned historical facts into mostly fictitious stories in her books, the English Governess at the Siamese Court, and the Romance of the Harem. It was based on these two books that the movie the King and I (and later a Broadway musical with the same title) was made, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. At the present moment, the film was remade into Anna and the King, starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-fat. It is interesting to note that while the original actor Yul Brynner was a Christian, the new actor Chow Yun-fat is also a Buddhist.
Contrary to the film, which is mostly fictitious, there was no romance between Anna and the King, and of course Anna had never served as foriegn affairs adviser to the King. King Mongkut died of malaria, believed to be infected through mosquitoes while he was studying the solar eclipse, at an age of 64 in October 18, 1868. When the King passed away, Anna was in the United States, not beside the King as the movie said.
The throne was succeeded by King Chulalongkorn of Rama V, who declined to rehire Anna as the English teacher. He did however continue the effort of bringing Thailand into the modern 20th Century by promoting science and technology and abolishing bowing and slavery. His grandson, Bhumibol, is Thailand's current monarch who will lead Thailand into the new millenium, to become another Asian Dragon in terms of economic and cultural influence to the modern world.