Her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra
The Founder of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation Under Royal Patronage
In 2000, UNESCO honored the Princess Mother as a “great personality in public service in the fields of education, applied science, and human, social, and environmental development”
Destined to become HRH Princess Srinagarindra or the Princess Mother, Sangwan was born into a goldsmith family in the Anongkaram Temple community in Thonburi.
When still very young, her father passed away. Under their mother’s care, she and her younger brother were taught to read and write at home.
Sangwan was a precocious reader. Book-rental shops were ideal for those who loved to read. The owner of one local book rental shop liked the bright young girl and waived the rental fees for her. She was able to read as many books as she liked, opening her mind to the vast world of knowledge. She also had the good fortune to attend a temple school for girls, then joined Suksanaree School for Girls, but the family could only afford school fees for one month.
When she was 7, Sangwan entered the Royal household of Princess Valaya Alongkorn. She had the good fortune to be sent for formal education at Satri Witthaya School until Elementary Grade 3.
At age 13, Sangwan accepted an offer to study at the School of Midwifery and Nursing of Siriraj Hospital. In 1917 Sangwan was awarded the Queen Savang Vadhana Scholarship to study nursing in the United States of America.
Immediately upon her arrival, she met His Royal Highness Prince Mahidol (a son of His Majesty King Rama V and Queen Savang Vadhana) who was studying Medicine at Harvard. It was love at first sight; and the happy couple was officially married at Srapatum Palace, Bangkok in 1920.
After the marriage, Prince Mahidol and Mom Sangwan Mahidol lived in several countries in Europe where Prince Mahidol studied at different universities before returning to the United States where he resumed his studies in Public Health at Harvard University at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Mom Sangwan attended nursing, chemistry, childcare, and dietetics courses at Simmons College, and divided her time to look after her children.
Upon completion of the Prince Father’s studies in 1928, the family – now had three young children – returned to Thailand. A year later, Prince Mahidol suddenly passed away. Mom Sangwan, then 29, assumed the total responsibility in bringing up three royal children. With the concern for her elder son’s fragile health, Mom Sangwan decided to move the family to Lausanne, Switzerland in 1933, raising them as ordinary people through good education and a practical approach towards life.
In 1935, her elder son, at the age of nine, was invited by the new democratic government of Thailand to become the next King—the first Thai King to ascend the throne under the first constitution. Mom Sangwan’s prime responsibility was thus to prepare the young King to rule the country during this critical political transition period in Thai society. It was at this time that she was given the title of Her Royal Highness the Princess Mother. She insisted that the young King be allowed to continue his studies in Switzerland and lived the life of an ordinary man. Well-loved and respected by his subjects, he was in the throne for 13 years and passed away in 1946. His younger brother, the current King of Thailand, then succeeded to the throne at the age of 18.
HRH the Princess Mother stayed in Switzerland and did not return to Thailand until 1964—when she was 64 years old. In this phase of life, HRH the Princess Mother devoted herself and her time to improve the quality of lives of the rural poor and underprivileged groups through frequent visits to remote areas and a large variety of appropriate-scale development programs. She worked ceaselessly on these projects until she passed away in 1995. Her last project, the “Doi Tung Development Project” was initiated in 1987 under the management of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, also established by the Princess Mother. (MFLF’s Origin)
Mae Fah Luang is the title given to Princess Srinagarindra by the hill tribe people in the north of Thailand. Since the late 1960s, the Princess Mother worked to improve the living conditions of rural Thais, particularly the ethnic minorities in remote mountainous areas that were only accessible by helicopter. On those visits, she learnt about their hardship, their lack of opportunity in life and the illnesses that plagued them. She would be seen accompanied by a medical team to take care of any sick or injured she came across. She would also bring them clothes, food, other essentials, and even toys for the children. It was this very image of the Princess Mother descending from the skies that gave rise to the name “Mae Fah Luang” (meaning Royal Mother from the Sky) and became the affectionate title by which the local people address the Princess Mother.