Mahavajiravudh School in the southern province of Songkhla has churned out some of the country's best-loved leaders over the past 100 years. Privy Council president and statesman Gen Prem Tinsulanonda is among the more prominent. What is less known is that in its early days this prestigious school boasted an iconic teacher who inspired generation after generation of students, Prem among them, with his playful approach to education.
Written by Thanom Khunphet, himself an alumnus of Mahavajiravudh, the book pays tribute to the legendary teacher Khru Klao Kachachat, who devoted himself to the profession for 37 years right up until his death in 1962.
The story of his life is constructed mainly from the manuscripts, photographs and interviews of his former students, colleagues, friends and relatives. The result is an insightful portrait of an ordinary man with an extraordinary mission - teaching the country's leaders-to-be.
A foreword by Prem confirms Khru Klao's presence at the heart of the history of Mahavajiravudh.
The picture that comes through most strongly, etched in the memory of most alumni, is of Khru Klao's unorthodoxy, which turned sleepy afternoon classes into circuses of fun, unusual amid the austerity of Thai school life in the inter-war years.
Mahavajiravudh School was founded in 1897 by regional governor Chao Phraya Yomarat to honour His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mahavajiravudh, later King Rama VI. Thanks to its strict discipline and high educational standards, the all-male institution (now accepting girls) shaped the lives of many young men who were to become leading thinkers, opinion makers and politicians in Thailand.
Born in 1904 in Songkhla to a family whose business was selling vegetables, Klao was a country boy who sought to better his life through education. He himself was among the first graduates of Mahavajiravudh in 1920.
After graduation, Klao trained for a teaching certificate at his alma mater.
Teaching was truly a life-long passion for Khru Klao, and when the school celebrated its centenary in 1997, he was recognised for his devotion with a place in the school's hall of fame alongside old boys like Prem.
Prem's tribute in the book is a hymn of praise for his beloved mentor. A polite and calm student, Prem recalls the cheerful atmosphere of the English classes led by Klao and the tutorials taken at his house.
"The fact that I did well at school was not just down to my own efforts, but also the support I received both from my teacher and mother. Back then my favourite subject was the English I studied with Khru Klao."
The privy councillor was impressed with the teacher's subtle methods and artistic flair. Klao had a keen interest in southern Thai shadow play and norah dance and acting.
"I owe a debt of gratitude to all my teachers," says Prem. "But I studied with Khru Klao for many years, and he loved me very much. He was great both as a teacher and a counsellor. I think he took care of me because I was probably a good student in his eyes. Whenever I've been back to Songkhla to see old friends, we've talked about Khru Klao. If he were still alive, he would be very happy to see me in this position.
"But this doesn't mean that my other teachers weren't any good. Generally, teachers of that period were very good despite the fact that they weren't highly qualified.''
Klao's classroom antics managed to stimulate laughter and learning at the same time.
He liked to hold the interest of the class by telling stories, which added more fun to subjects like English, Thai literature and maths (the shortage of school teachers during the inter-war years meant that teachers often taught more than one subject).
Stories told in class ranged from local ones like Phra Aphaimanee and the Ramakian, to foreign tales of Sherlock Holmes and Alexander the Great. Khru Klao enjoyed adapting the stories with local references. For instance, he placed himself in the role of Baker Street's English sleuth and his colleague Khru Yothin as Dr Watson.
Keeping his students abreast of current affairs was also important to Klao and on one occasion the scope of the responsibility of the governor of Songkhla was a hot topic of debate in class.
But it was his English class that was most popular with students. Klao found new methods to inject fun into learning with, among other things, his own way of mixing Thai with English idioms to demonstrate the use and role of English phrases with everyday Thai speech.
Old boys like Gen Prem can still recall Khru Klao's passion for back-to-front pronunciations of Thai words added to English phrases for comical effects. His famous funny line was "Today was the Shetpring day". "Shetpring" is a reversal of "Shingpret", a Southern-Thai form of ancestral worship. How about "Have you a sad-kra-ded for shooted?" ("sad-kra-ded" from sed-kra-dad for scraps of paper, and "shooted" for shet-tood meaning "cleaning the buttock").
After a period of ill health, Khru Klao died at the age of 58 in April 1962.
The funeral was attended by many old Mahavajiravudh students who wished to pay their respects to a teacher who had been, in Prem's words, like a second father.
His memory will live on for some time with the people of Songkhla.