Spots of Time

September 23, 2003

The Kingdom Of Thailand

You are now in Bangkok, Thailand. 15 degree, 00' North, 100 degrees, 00' East
If you fly along this Latitude in an easterly direction, you will look down on Manila, Philippines; Guam; Guatemala City, Guatemala; Tegucigalpa, Honduras; Dominica; Dakar, Senegal; Niamey, Niger; Khartoum, Sudan; Asmara, Eritrea; Sanaa, Yemen; Madras, India; Bangkok.

If you fly along this Longitude starting north, you will look down on Dali, China; Bayanhongor, Mongolia; Bratsk, Russia; North Pole; Padang, Indonesia; Bangkok.

*****

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the leader of the Kingdom of Thailand, is either a very, very good husband, or a very, very bad husband. There is no other way to explain the countless photographs of his wife, Queen Sirikit, which cover Thailand like rainbow flags during Gay Pride in San Francisco.

When I first arrived in Thailand, I was immediately struck by the enormous larger-than-life images of Queen Sirikit, dozens of which lined the street on either side of the Democracy Monument in Bangkok. After a few more days I noticed that her image could be found EVERYWHERE. Hence my theory. If the King is a bad husband, I imagine that each one of these is an "I'm sorry, honey" - done extravagantly, as only royalty can do. If, on the other hand, he is a good husband, then each one of these images is a tribute to his wife - and every woman in his kingdom. How can any Thai woman, young or old, look upon these pictures and think anything but good thoughts of the King?

His Majesty King Bhumibol is the world's longest-reigning living monarch. Born in 1927, in the United States, where his father was studying at Harvard University, the King has been ruling Thailand for over 50 years. Known as Rama IX, King Bhumibol is the ninth ruler in the Chakri dynasty. He is currently 76 years old and said to be in failing health - though no one talks about such things in public. In fact, the average visitor to Thailand might guess the King to be a fit man in his 40s - I know I did. It wasn't entirely my fault. Every photograph I saw of him in my first two weeks in Thailand (and there were many, many photographs) showed a man in the prime of his life.

To give you an idea of the King's popularity, prior to the screening of every movie in Thailand, the entire audience is asked to "stand and pay your respects to the King." The entire audience stands and an instrumental version of the Thai national anthem is played with an assortment of floating circular photographs of the king touring the country, superimposed in front of a lush green Thai landscape. It's actually very touching - propaganda sure, but very well done propaganda. The final picture shows a more mature image of the King - closer to what I presume he looks like now, in his late 70s.

A constitutional monarchy, Thailand is "ruled" by the King, but true governmental power resides with the Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was popularly elected a few years ago (voting is compulsory in Thailand). That said, saying the King is nothing more than a figure head in Thailand doesn't seem to be an accurate assessment. The people seem to truly love and respect their monarch, and there are many examples of the King helping to "sway" legislation through his endorsement of matters.

Americans (myself included) have long been fascinated with royalty - probably because we don't have our own with which to gossip and obsess. Princess Diana was particularly popular in America, and I vividly remember where I was when I heard that she had died. Though I once traveled to the United Kingdom, complete with visit to Buckingham Palace and a tour of the Crown Jewels, my arrival to Thailand had me much more obsessed with the concept of a "kingdom." And I would be lying if I said "The King and I" didn't play a role. The first time I watched that movie I developed a romantic notion of what a kingdom was like in the eastern world - royalty riding on elephants, colorfully dressed women and exotic tropical surroundings.

Much of what Americans know about royalty in Thailand is rooted in an exaggerated story about Rama IV, known to the Western world as King Mongkut, that has found its way into popular American culture in the form of the musical and several movies, most recently "Anna and the King." Based on a book written by Anna Leonowens, who was brought to Thailand as an English teacher, the book exaggerates Leonowens's role in the court, her relationship with the king and her influence on social reform in Thailand. In fact, the film "The King and I" so enraged Thai people that it was banned in Thailand.

It is true that many social reforms and changes took place in Thailand (then Siam) around the time of King Mongkut, but most especially during the the reign of his son, Rama V. Rama V enjoys a popular following in Thailand, like that of Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill, for his contributions to the country. Educated by European tutors, he is credited with fending off colonization - a major feat during that time period. Thailand is the only country in South East Asia that was not colonized by European powers. He abolished slavery and was the first of the Thai Kings to travel to Europe. While it is said that more land was lost during his reign than of any other monarch, it can also be said that by giving away the minor interests he was able to preserve the major ones - the core of Thailand.

My Thai friend Surin told me that Rama V was the monarch who first introduced eating utensils to Thailand - previously Thai people ate most all food with their hands. The story goes that after eating an elaborate formal meal in Europe, the King determined that of all the dozens of utensils used, only one fork and one spoon were really useful and necessary. To this day, with the exception of noodles (with which they use chopsticks) and sticky rice (with which they still use their hands) most urban Thai's eat their meals with a spoon and a fork - spearing and moving the food with the fork, but eating out of the spoon.

Writer's Note: Much of the above historical data on Thailand comes from my Lonely Planet guidebook for Thailand - whose reputation is excellent but which, like most sources of information, is not completely infallible. Sure Lonely Planet can tell me that modern Thailand, slightly smaller than Texas or about the size of France, is a country of 62 million people, 95% of which are Buddhist. That Thailand offers all of its citizens free education until the age of twelve years old and has the highest literacy rate of all of South East Asia. I won't argue with that. But, the story of King Mongkut and Anna Leonowens reminds me that there are two sides to every story - and that I must be careful what information on Thailand I accept and which information I reject - be that from books, expats, Thais or other travelers. While gathering information is good, I also need to keep my eyes open and judge for myself. As a monk told me during my recent medidation course, "Don't just listen to what I say and take it to be true - do your own research and determine if this is right - if this works for you."

Wise words - pass it on.