Weekly Travel Feature

Before Fying to Russia, Here's come background information

Prepared by Harold Stephens
Travel Correspondent for Thai Airways International

Thai Airways now has direct flights from Bangkok to Russia. When I first heard the news that the airline was opening up the new route to Moscow, I couldn’t help asking why, what is the connection, other than merely being a commercial venture? There had to be a deeper reason, and there is.

For those who intend to fly from Bangkok to Moscow, a little background information will make the trip even more interesting.

The friendly relation between Thailand and Russia is nothing new. Thailand’s ties with Russia, or with Siam as it was back then, began during the beginning of the Ratthanakosin era or the Ayutthaya period. Although not as long a relationship as Siam had with colonial powers, mainly Britain, France, Holland, and Portugal, Siam’s involvement with Russia was significant and a unique relationship.

While European nations came with guns and swords, the friendship between the two respective monarchs, King Chulalongkorn and Czar Nicholas II, the last Czar of Russia before Russia became a republic, was very much different.

But let’s go back a bit farther. The relationship between the two countries actually began in 1790. There is written evidence in the journal "History of Travelling around the World" by explorer Anton Frangsur Pravost of travellers visiting Siam in that year. The journal contained valuable information regarding newly discovered cultures, including religion, art, trading, and handicrafts. The journal was printed in Russian in 1790. I found reference to this important document at Maps & Prints shop at River City.

The first real contacts, however, between Russia and Siam date back to February 19, 1863, when two Russian ships, ‘Gaydamak’ and ‘Novik.’ anchored at the Bangkok Port on the Chao Phraya River, on assignment from the Russian government to explore uncharted territories, including those in Southeast Asia.

Admiral Alexi Petchurov noted positively that the people of Siam were industrious and friendly and welcomed foreigners. The Russians were warmly received by the Thai people and welcomed into the court of Rama IV, King Mongkut. The Russians sent military advisors to Siam on two other occasions, in 1873 and 1882.

Siam considered Russia as an ally which could render assistance in the Siamese struggle for preserving independence against the colonial expansion of European powers. The relations between the two countries received substantial progress. In 1882 the Russian naval squadron, under the command of Rear Admiral A.B. Aslambekov, came to Siam on the occasion of the Chakri Dynasty Centennial Celebration. Russian Crown Prince Nikholas visited Bangkok in 1891. That same year, Siamese Prince Damrong visited Livadia (now Crimea) where he was given an audience by the Russian Emperor Alexander III. In 1896 Siamese Prince Chira was a guest at the Coronation Ceremony of Emperor Nikholas II.

King Chulalongkom followed in the footsteps of his father, King Mongkut, and recognized the opportunity to strengthen relations with Russia. King Chulalongkom had been educated in European ways and was fluent in English which enabled him to communicate with ease with visiting diplomats and other visiting Royalty, making them welcome guests to the Kingdom. An important visitor to Siam was the Tsarcvitch Nicholas who thoroughly enjoyed his visit while staying at the Bang Pa-In Summer Palace north of Bangkok. An easy, genuine friendship developed between the visiting Tsarevitch and King Chulalongkom, a visit that was genuinely appreciated as Russia had no territorial eyes on Siam.

Territorial losses to England and France had been a constant worry for King Chulalongkorn. He regarded the situation so potentially serious that in 1897, he embarked on a peace-making visit to European countries. He hoped to establish "balancing" friendships and create bonds with as many European nations as possible. King Chulalongkom felt he had at least one genuine friend in Europe. After his visit to the Bang Pa-In Summer Palace, Tsarcvitch Nicholas had now become Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor of all  Russia.

So began an arduous, nine-month, overseas journey, and a very successful one for King Chulalongkom. Much of the success we can credit to the friendship of Tsar Nicholas II.

During this visit of King Chulalongkorn to Russia on July 2-10, 1897, diplomatic relations between Russia and Siam were formalized. On December 4, 1897 Mr. Alexander Olarovsky was appointed as Charge d'Affaires and Consul-General of Russia to Siam. On April 14, 1898 the Russian Consulate-General was opened in Bangkok. Later it was upgraded into the Mission which operated until 1917. On June 23, 1899 the Russian-Siamese Declaration of Jurisdiction, Trade and Navigation was signed in Bangkok.

Many Thai Royal Family members and state officials visited Russia after that. Young Thai aristocrats received education in St. Petersburg and Moscow. The son of King Chulalongkorn––H.R.H. Prince Chakrabongse––stayed in Russia for several years, studied at the Corps des Pages and General Staff Academy, and served in the Russian Army. In 1906 he married Ekaterina Desnitskaya.

When Tsarcvitch Grand Duke Nicholas visited Singapore in 1892, he accepted an invitation from King Chulalongkom to visit Siam from March 20-24 of that year.

Those five short days were auspicious indeed, as it was the first time Siam had played host to a leader of one of the world's great powers. Afterwards, whenever a large, elaborate event was put on in Thai society, a popular saying was, "Like you are receiving the czar of Russia."

The first three days in the capital, Saranrom Palace was decorated and furnished as luxuriously as possible to make the honored guests feel at home. The Grand Duke was also presented with a golden yellow sash, which was strictly reserved for members or high royalty of the Chakri dynasty. What was considered to be the largest picnic in the world was held at the time, and the first royal elephant hunt was conducted. Over 3,000,000 people attended, with hundreds of boats taking part in the procession. The royal elephant hunt made this occasion even more special. I dug deep into the archives and found information that had long been forgotten about this visit. I must admit that it gave me background for my book, For the Love of Siam, when King Narai staged elephant hunts for foreigners.

This hunt for Tsarcvitch Grand Duke Nicholas was the largest, most elaborate in the history of Siam and, as it turns out, the final royal elephant hunt of the Ratthanakosin era. The Czar truly appreciated the spectacle, for not only was hunting for elephants with bare hands a dangerous and difficult undertaking, which required great skill and bravery, but also it was the expression of a centuries old tradition which was not easy to hold. Even then, wild elephants were increasingly hard to find. Previously the Czar had a chance to participate in a similar event in Sri Lank but they had only nine elephants compared to the 300 elephants that took part in the ceremony in Siam.

The royal elephant hunt took place over a period of two days. The first day resulted in the successful capture of only one male elephant with large tusks. Because the hunt captured only a single elephant, it was thus named "ply- Tsarevitch." After the hunt was concluded, the royal party and guests returned to the Bang Pa-In palace for a special Moonlight Party. The atmosphere was truly festive with countless torches illuminating the grounds. Elaborate shows were on display for the entertainment of the Tsarevitch of Russia.

It was interesting for me to note that there was an abundance of delicious food, and four beautifully decorated stations that handed out lavish bouquets and intricate garlands. Each station was manned by not one, but two beautiful girls who could speak English. The Tsarevitch and his party visited each station, followed by two groups of merry pipers playing music. Around eight PM, King Chulalongkom came out to join the festivities. Soon after, the sounds of another pipe band joined in, adding to the excitement and gaiety.

A long, army military procession led the way. Members of the navy followed, carrying branches festooned with candles, accompanied by the sounds of flutes and chimes. Dancers dressed as lions carried lit glasses while ladies carried candles. This was followed by a troupe playing recorders. There was also a display of the Ramakien epic. At midnight, the King retired to his quarters. The Tsarevitch and his party were left to enjoy the party at their leisure which lasted until late hours. And so concluded the Moonlight Party.

Prince E. Atomsky, a member of Crown Prince Nicholas II’s party, expressed his deep appreciation to the honest and heartfelt display of affection by the Thai people. The many little things offered to the King's honored guest were gifts that the Russians felt had value, from the heart. He wrote: "Villagers of all ages, bearing gifts came. Some with caged birds, some with fruits. Some with handspun clothes, some with triangular pillows. They approached in astonishing silence, even though there were no less than 2,000 subjects at hand. They reverently bowed their heads to the floor, placed their offerings in front of the Tsarevitch, and sat down peacefully. Later subjects found it difficult to find a place for their gifts, there were so many of them. These offerings from the Siamese people were by no means lavish, yet the Tsarevitch was duly touched, thus making these gifts priceless."

Before the Tsarevitch took leave of Siam, King Chulalongkorn had one more event in his honor, a royal grand banquet at Waropatphiman Palace. All the servants and musicians were outfitted in evening dress. A grand royal orchestra gave a marvelous performance, to the delight of the guests, who praised the performance to no end as "like a dream."

The next morning on March 25, 1892, the two royal parties took photographs together one last time before parting ways. (These I found at Maps & Prints.) The Russian party was escorted on the royal barge Suriyamonlhon back to their warships anchored at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River. With all the royal gifts of animals, the ships were like floating zoos! The Russian ships fired their guns in salute, paying their respect and bidding farewell.

The meeting between the two monarchs cemented the friendly relations between the wintry Russian empire and the sunny Siamese kingdom. Even with an age difference of 15 years and contrasting personalities—the younger Crown Prince shy and reserved, while the King was a jovial, conversational sort—in the end both royals took a liking to each other, and this visit led to the forging of a lasting friendship between the Romanovs of Russia and the Chakri dynasty of Siam. It was a relationship that would prove useful to both in the coming decades.

As we can be certain, Thai Airway International’s flight to Moscow does have a deep meaning.

While we are on the subject of Russian influence around the world, next week I will take readers to Russian America. I recently returned from touring Russian sites in California.



Q, Dear ROH. I am very interested in your Fly-drive programme. I see that there are many different types. Would it be possible to rent a car in Bangkok and drive all the way thought Malaysia to Singapore? Thanks you. Jane Samson, Seattle, WA,

A Dear Jane, I am sorry but that is impossible. Both Avis and Budget vehicle are licensed only for Thailand. It is possible however to drive to Hai Jai, drop your rental car off there, and catch a shuttle bus to Penang and rent a car there to drive to Johore across from Singapore. Singapore these days has some tough restriction on vehicles entering the country. Rental cars cannot enter but once yuou are in Singapore you can ran a car there. You can leave your car in Johore and get a bus across the causeway into Singapore. It is a bit moiré complicated but it is possible  Good travelling. —HS

Harold Stephens
E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel (booking@inet.co.th)

Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.

A Russia ship brings Tsarcvitch Nicholas up the Chao Phraya

King Chulalongkom, left, and Tsarcvitch Nicholas at the Royal Palace in Bangkok

Temple gathering honouring Tsarcvitch Nicholas

Tsarcvitch Nicholas visited the elephant kraal

Elephants of display for the Russian royal family

Preparing an elephant for review

Stephens drove a jeep across Russia

Looking out across the vast Russian Steppes

Typical Russian villages, unchanged buy time

Rugged mountain passes had to be traversed

Monuments everywhere in Russia depicting WWII

Red Square in Moscow. Lining up to see Lenin¹s Tomb

The beauty of Moscow is its temples and churches

A Russian face, stern and serious

Two Russian men, one a Cossack

Lady swimmer on the Black Sea

Churches in Russia have re-opened

For more about driving in Russia, read the author¹s Who Needs a Road, available at Amazon.com