The 19th century was a nightmarish time for South and Southeast Asia. Back in those days, the French conquered Vietnam. The British owned the whole Indian subcontinent, plus Burma (now called Myanmar) and Malaysia. The Dutch laid claims to Indonesia. And the Spaniards commanded the Philippines. During that turbulent period, it was extremely difficult for a nation to hold onto its sovereignty because its weapons were outdated and totally inadequate. But amazingly, in that region, there was one country that managed to withstand the mounting pressures and was never colonized by any foreign power. That lone country was Siam, now called the Kingdom of Thailand.
Why was Siam able to stay independent? The reason was quite simple. It was because it had a very capable ruler whose reforms saved his kingdom from the reach of imperialism. That visionary leader was Chulalongkorn (Rama V), the fifth king of the Chakri dynasty.
Chulalongkorn was born on September 20, 1853. As the eldest son of the reigning King Mongkut (Rama IV) and Queen Debsirinda, he was the designated heir apparent. When he was fifteen years old, his father suddenly fell ill and passed away. The young boy, still quite inexperienced, ascended the throne on October 1, 1868, with Si Suriyawong by his side acting as his regent. For the first five years of his reign, Chulalongkorn did not actively participate in running the affairs of his own kingdom. He used the occasion to complete his education and made several visits to countries nearby. During those trips, Chulalongkorn learned of the Western cultures and traditions, had first-hand knowledge of the latest technology, and understood fully what colonization could do to a nation.