A piece of Thailand in Sweden
This sign stands near a field in Jämtland and says “King Chulalongkorn’s Road”, in other words a rather unexpected sight that makes no sense. What’s the story behind it? We have to travel back in time, to 1897 to get the full story. The king of Sweden (and Norway to be historically correct) Oscar II sent an invitation to king Chulalongkorn of Thailand to visit the Art och Industry Exhibition in Stockholm and the king of Thailand accepted the invitation.
King Oscar also wanted to show him other parts of Sweden and since king Chulalongkorn was interested in the Swedish sawmill industry, the royal choice was to travel parts of the north of Sweden. King Oscar had travelled there himself earlier and knew he would not only be able to show the Thai king things he had expressed a particular interest in, he would also get a chance to show Sweden at its very best with beautiful landscape views and long, bright summer nights. Besides, king Chulalongkorn had also expressed interest in studying modern means of transport and this trip would provide many opportunities to fulfil his wishes.
King Chulalongkorn of Thailand was not just any king in the succession line. He saw other countries in the Far East becoming colonies to European countries and did not want the same thing for Thailand and realized the only possibility to avoid foreigners taking over was to develop and modernise the country. He organised a functioning mail system, he had a phone network built and many other things that were necessary to give the country a modern structure, thereby managing to keep foreign powers out of the country. This brought him on many travels around the world and he was the first Thai king to learn English.
The royal party, about 30 persons, travelled by their own yacht to Härnösand where they had to change to local steamer to Sollefteå because the Swedish rivers were too shallow for the royal ship. They left Sollefteå by train to Bispgården the following day and after a luncheon there, they had to travel by horse and carriage on a dusty road to Utanede and the Edset’s steam boat bridge.
The entire road was decorated with the very best of what could be found in Ragunda and preserved notes from the king’s secretary tell that the royals felt genuinely touched and honoured by the efforts the cheering crowds had made. The trip continued by SS LIDEN to Sundsvall and the story could have ended as some sort of picturesque memory here.
About 50 years later, roadworks were carried out on the road the king of Thailand had travelled and his visit was still remembered by the local population, and they decided to name the road after him. The story could have ended at this point, but a group of Thai dancers visited Ragunda in 1992 and heard about the road named after their king.
They paid a visit to Utanede and what they saw made them enthusiastic. The society Chulalongkorn’s Memory was founded in 1993 and a committee including both Thai and Swedish representatives was founded the following year after an initiative by Ragunda kommun to emphasize the project’s official status.
The construction works began in 1997 and had involved architects from Sweden and Thailand. The spot selected for the pavillion was not the most suitable from a construction point of view because it was in the middle of a field hiding a 20 metres thick layer of clay. Material had been taken from that field in the 40’s for dam construction works at a nearby power station and the hole left afterwards was filled with water and created the pond needed for a true Thai temple. Monks from Thailand went to Utanede, blessed the place and after that nothing could be changed.
About 80 steel poles, the longest with a length of 30 metres, had to be piled down to provide a stabile foundation for the pavillion. Another construction problem to solve was the decorations. Concrete absorbs water and water expands when freezing and they could easily conclude that concrete decorations would not last long in the harsh climate and may also pose a possible danger for visitors. Teak would stand the climate and last long, but using teak would become way too expensive. The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm was involved and they found a kind of plastic that would stand the climate without cracking and the risk of water coming in was avoided. The current king of Thailand’s own craftsmen made the decorations and that is an indication of how important the erection of the pavillion was to them. On second thought, perhaps the word is insufficient here – it is probably a load of dignity involved here too.
The entire project has had a positive influence on the cultural bonds between Sweden and Thailand and Bangkok and Ragunda are, believe it or not, sister towns. An odd combination indeed and as different as chalk to cheese, but it works.
Another thing that clearly stresses the significance attached to this project is that no changes on the premises are made without Thai authorities’ approval. Their wish is that the premises should be kept in Thai-style and that wish is apparently respected which is a good thing.
I don’t remember much of what the press wrote when it opened to the public, but as far as I can remember, it was nothing more than press items showing the quite odd appearance of a Thai pavillion on the Swedish country side and a couple of lines about king Chulalongkorn’s visit which makes me believe that they did not bother to understand the deeper international relations aspect of it.
The intention is also to give visitors a chance to experience and get to know Thai culture and that cannot be wrong bearing in mind that many Swedes go to Thailand for holidays. Probably needless to say the differences are many, but there are also similarities. This is a house for the house spirits and they must be kept content by giving them food, flowers etc. If they are discontent, feel insulted or discontent, the people and the buildings they are supposed to protect cannot count on their help any longer and bad things may happen to them as long as the spirits’ discontent lasts. Swedish tradition is that a tree is specially cared for, it will protect the house. There were also gnomes and other supernatural beings that had to be kept happy to keep a farm and its cattle safe from all kinds of evil things like spells, witchcraft and what else people used to believe in long ago. It may be a bit like jumping to conclusions but I can see the similarities – do you also see them?