The astonishing story of how a Greek nearly became King of Siam

(Note – a version this post first appeared on our shiny Medium blog)

A Greek youngster almost became the King of Siam. And some of the most cherished Thai desserts were invented by his wife. Believe me?

A tale of power, love and sweet treats

When taking the fascinating Bangkok <> Chiang Mai train, your carriage will pull into Lop Buri station right next to three ancient Khmer stupas (Prang Sam Yot) covered in Macaque monkeys.

The stupas look so different from others you see on the line, and these hint at an incredible true story that demands to be told. One of power, love, passion and betrayal. With a smattering of Thai deliciousness.

The capital of Siam

It may be a laid back and sleepy little town now, but Lop Buri was once the capital of Siam, and a place where the relationship between Siam and the West was formed.

Marco Polo was probably the first European to set foot here in the middle ages, when it was a Khmer city, and he talks about Lop Buri in book 3 of his chronicles (where it is called Locach). But lets fast-forward to 1675.

Map made in 1750 of Lop Buri during the time of King Narai (1656–88)

It was a time of a great wave of globalisation, when European kingdoms had mastered navigation, developed a taste for oriental goods, and were expanding their interests and influence around the world — setting up colonies to trade, but often to coerce and steal.

The French was setting up their principle base at Pondicherry. The British East India company was getting its hooks into South Asia. The Dutch had just kicked the Portuguese and British out of Indonesia, and began influencing Japan.

Thailand would be different. It is unique in Southeast Asia in that it has, arguably, never been colonised. Certainly not by a European power.

France, Siam, and the arrival of an adventurer

Today in Lop Buri, you can find another ruin of an entirely different style of the Khmer stupas, standing 400 metres to the west. Its architecture is French — a grand central courtyard, partially preserved stucco decorations over windows and doors, and circular staircases leading to grand receptions.

This is Wichayen House, and it was built by the Greek adventurer Constantine Phaulkon.

Wichayen House

From shipwreck survivor to Siam powerplayer

Constantine was born in a fortress on the Ionian island of Cephalonia in 1647 under Venetian rule. As a young adult, he began working for the British East India company. In his late 20s, he was apparently shipwrecked in the vicinity of Siam, and was presented in front of the Phra Klang — the Siamese Minister for Finance and Foreign Affairs — and entered into his service due to his knack for languages.

Eventually he found himself before King Narai, the monarch of Siam, who was sufficiently charmed to take him into his own service in the Siamese royal court.

Upon the death of the Phra Klang, Constantine Phaulkon had demonstrated his merit enough to take up his boss’ duties, and over time he grew his portfolio to essentially become the Prime Minister — the second most powerful man in Siam.

The first Siamese Embassy to France in 1686

Advising the King

So in this age of growing influence of the English, Portuguese and the Dutch in Southeast Asia, Constantine Phaulkon advised King Naria to play balance-of-power geopolitics. In 1680, King Naria dispatched an embassy to form an alliance with another great power: King Louis XIV of France.

Louis XIV was receptive of the Siamese ambassador, and reciprocated with the dispatch of an ambassador to Lop Buri.

Alexandre, Chevalier de Chaumont — first ambassador of France in Siam — presents a letter from Louis XIV to King Narai

As such, Wichayen House was built to house the French Embassy in Siam. It was replete with a church for the large contingent of clergy who accompanied the Ambassadors in a bid to convert King Narai to catholicism.

Growing relationships between France and Siam

The conversion failed of course, but in 1687, with both the Thai and French in conflict with the English, a win-win was found when King Narai offered to station the French navy in Mergui — an important Indian Ocean port across the Tenasserim hills from Ayutthaya (in modern day Myanmar). Another garrison was offered to the French at the entrance of the Chao Phraya river in modern day Bangkok.

The French embassies eventually went home or on to their new garrisons, and Constantine kept Wichayen House for himself, reflecting his prominent status following his meteoric rise in the Siamese court.

Love and Thai cooking

Constantine Phaulkon’s story up to now is already worth its own TV mini-series. But there was also a love interest.

Maria Guyomar de Pinha was born in the Siamese capital of Ayutthaya. Her mother was Japanese, and a Christian, and fled Japan for Thailand due to the repression of her faith. Her father was from Portuguese Goa, and was of mixed Japanese and Portuguese descent.

Importantly, Maria was an extraordinary cook, and occasionally introduced the Siamese Court to Portuguese desserts adapted to local ingredients.

Maria has been credited with many treasured Thai recipes, including at least two of the “9 Auspicious Thai Deserts”: Thong Yip (a sweet, eggy, mini-pancake pinched together into a flower shape), and Foi Thong (kind of like sweet duck egg spaghetti). There is some debate about whether she can claim other Thai culinary treasures, such as Khanom Mo Kaeng (a spongy custard cake), or Khanom Ping (a popular coconut-flavoured cookie).

Regardless, her knowledge of Portuguese, Thai, and even Japanese cuisine, when combined with her privileged position in the Siamese court, meant that her legacy in shaping Thai popular cuisine is unquestionable.

Thong Yip

Growing tensions

The growing closeness between Siam and France, as well as the rise and rise of Constantine Phaulkon in the King’s esteem, meant there was a growing weariness and envy of foreign influence among others in the Siamese court.

To help put it into context, the French embassies dispatched to Siam included over a thousand soldiers, 5 warships, and an unnecessary number of Jesuit clergymen ready to argue the shawls off the court’s Buddhist clergy. They then established a visible show of force in fortresses in Bangkok and Mergui. All this left many a Siamese eyebrow elevated, and an open door for nationalist sentiment to convert into whispers against King Narai’s globalist agenda.

When King Narai became terminally ill in 1688, rumours — possibly true ones — spread that Constantine Phaulkon had the intent to take the throne for himself.

Could a Greek become King of Siam?

Lets pause to imagine for a second: a common-born, ship-wrecked Greek actually becoming the King of Siam. Can you think of a precedent for this? If he pulled that off, there would definitely be a TV series about it, and it would be more audacious than the story of Marco Polo.

But with the King without a male heir, succession was disputed. So a plot of nationalist courtiers took hold, led by the King’s foster brother — Pra Phetracha, who was also the Commander of the Royal Elephant Corps (yep, that was a real thing).

Constantine and Maria reached out to the French officer overseeing the fort in Bangkok, which sent 80 troops toward Lop Buri to quell the revolt. But by the time he got up to Ayutthaya, he lost his nerve and abandoned the plan amidst conflicting reports of the evolving situation upstream (and the real possibility of facing an army of freeking war elephants!).

Pra Phetracha arrested the infirm King Narai, who died in incarceration a couple of months later. He then killed Narai’s daughter and adopted son, and all other brothers and family members that could make a reasonable claim on the throne.

He then went to Wichayen House to execute Constantine Phaulkon.

Flight & fate

Maria had successfully arranged to be ennobled as a countess of France, which meant she could flee to the protection of the French garrison in Bangkok. But within a few months, Pra Phetracha had pressured the garrison commander to hand over Maria to him, under expressed assurances of her safety. Pra Phetracha, determined to expel all foreigners from Siam, negotiated for all French troops to retreat from Siam to Pondicherry, effectively ending French influence in the Kingdom.

Surprisingly, Maria wasn’t killed. Instead, she was put to work in the royal kitchen. She cooked under duress there for 15 years until she was freed by Pra Phetracha’s death.

What did she do with her freedom?: She took on the position of the head chef of the kitchen of the new King. In her spare time, she sued the French East India Company for money that she and Constantine lent them years earlier. She eventually won a decree from the French Council of State which paid her a maintenance allowance to live out the rest of her days in comfort, and she grew old enough to see her own children rise to lofty positions in the Royal court of Siam.

 

I don’t know about you, but I’d love to own a cookbook written by Maria Guyomar de Pinha. I’d also be keen to read, or watch the TV series adaptation of, the chronicles of Constantine Phaulkon. But unlike Marco Polo, he unfortunately never found the time to write it all down before his head was lopped and buried.

Get the audio guide

Download the Window Seater app - your offbeat guide to the world outside your window