In 1916, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) introduced a new ensign for Siam. According to some sources, the king was on a boat trip up the Chao Phraya River when he noticed the national flag, at the time a white elephant on a red background, being flown upside down over a hut. It wasn’t a good look.
Back in his Bangkok palace, the monarch designed a simpler and more modern-looking ensign, replacing the one which had been Siam’s national symbol for the previous 61 years.
Considering the flags of most European powers were based on stripes, representing their national colours, Vajiravudh came up with a new emblem consisting of five horizontal stripes of red, white, red, white, and red. It flew for about one year before the centre red stripe was changed to blue.
That three-coloured version has been the official national flag since 28 September 1917 and is known as the ‘Trairanga’ or ‘Trairong’, meaning tricolour. The prevailing- although unofficial- view of the meaning of the five stripes is: red represents the land and the people; white for Theravada Buddhism, the state religion; and the central blue stripe symbolises the monarchy. It has also been stated that blue was the official colour of King Vajiravudh.
Yet another account claims the blue was inserted as a show of solidarity following Thailand’s entry into the First World War (in July 1917) as an ally of Britain and France. You would think it couldn’t be that hard to work out why the blue stripe replaced the red, but maybe no one bothered writing down the precise reason, thus allowing some variation and confusion to reign. It wouldn’t be the first time something of this nature was allowed to create confusion.
Vexillologists are not in complete agreement with regard to the various flags of Thailand and their dates of introduction, although most sources seem to agree the first national ensign was a plain red colour with no other markings or features.
Just when the first Thai flag flew from a flagpole has never been established.
The first account to mention any sort of national flag symbol occurred during the reign of King Narai (1656-1688). According to some sources, a plain red banner was displayed by Ayutthayan merchant ships trading with foreign countries.
It is generally believed the first official Thai national flag was unfurled in 1680 when a French warship arrived at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River on a goodwill visit. The local governor was asked by the French commander if it would be allowed to fire a salute as it entered the mouth of the river. Permission was given and the Siamese manning the fort at the entrance returned the salute.
As it was customary to raise the national flag before a gun salute was fired, the governor found a suitable piece of red cloth, attached it to a rope and raised it to accept the French salute. Thai practicality at its best.
Research by Prince Damrong, a brother of King Chulalongkorn, showed the use of the red ensign could certainly be traced to the reign of King Borommakot (1733-1758) and a mission by 18 Buddhist monks who travelled to Sri Lanka in 1752 in an attempt to restore Sinhalese Buddhism. A journal, written at the time, mentions only red flags were used on the Thai sailing vessels.
Some time between 1752 and 1800, the Thai flag may have had a white chakra -a Buddhist wheel, shaped like a fan- added to the plain red.
Then, in 1817, during the reign of King Rama II, a white elephant was added to the centre of the chakra. This was apparently done because the King had taken delivery of a very rare white elephant, the third of his reign.
It is also suggested that the British-run port authority in Singapore claimed they couldn’t differentiate between private and government Thai merchant vessels and asked if it was possible for the Thais to issue an official flag.
This could only have happened some time after 1819, as Singapore was a virtually uninhabited island until that time. It was a different story by the early 1820s.
An American publication entitled The Flags of the Principal Nations of the World (published in 1837) shows the flag of Thailand as red with a white disk in the centre. On the white disk is a drawing of a sun with a face on it. This same drawing appears in renditions of the flags of both Uruguay and Peru.
The flag of Burma (only a part of which was under British control) is rendered as a red field with a white elephant facing the flagpole. This would seem to be more representative of Siam than Burma and almost certainly indicates a mistake made by the editors of the publication.
In 1855, during the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV), the white chakra was dropped and the vexillum was a red field with a white elephant in the centre. This remained the national symbol for the next 61 years, until that fateful day in 1916 when Vajiravudh saw it being flown upside down.