Thursday, December 06, 2007

"We Love Our King!"


Hundreds of thousands of Thais took to the streets in Bangkok on Wednesday to wish King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest reigning monarch, a happy 80th birthday. And I was in the thick of it. They shouted "Love Live the King" and We Love Our King." The King, also known as Rama IX of the Chakri dynasty, ascended to the throne in 1946 and his popularity is unbelievable to someone who grew up in a so-called "democracy" without royal underpinning. I saw the King drive by twice yesterday, catching a glimpse of the monarch in the back seat of the gold car where he sat next to Queen Sirikit, regal in his white uniform, and I felt the emotional thrill of the yellow-clad crowd in my bones. This must have been what it was like in 18th century France when Louis rode by in his carriage. I once saw Queen Elizabeth in a procession in London and the experience was similar. These humans are close to divine, their fame exceeding the 15 minutes alotted to mere mortals.

It was a full day for the King in a week (month! year!) that has featured an unprecedented level of celebration, following on almost similar festivities last year that marked his 60th year as king of Thailand. In the morning the king gave a royal audience to 20,000 of the nation's elite as he sat on the balcony of his throne hall in the Grand Palace, dressed in full regalia, before members of his family, government officials, distinguished foreign guests and and military generals. After a 21-gun salute, politicians and the king's only son Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn delivered speeches praising the monarch's work to develop the country.

In this country, religion and politics have been firmly united under the royal umbrella by a man much beloved by his subjects. In several speeches this week, he has asked loyal citizens in this constitutional democracy to keep the peace as Thailand prepares to elect a government to replace a military dictatorship that took control last year (with the King's blessing). Polls show the party that supports the man (Thaksin Shinawatra) ousted by the military is currently favored by voters. The King has been in ill health lately (which he joked about in his speeches) and his son lacks his father's stature and popular support. Married three times, the father of six children, even his mother the Queen has called him a "bit of a Don Juan." In his birthday speech, the Prince said "I would like to make an oath, in all sincerity, to promise that I will be honest, restrained and determined," he said. "I will refrain from things that should be avoided."

My celebration began on Tuesday when I met my guide at Starbucks on the Khaosan Road and we walked the short distance to Ratchadamnoen, the broad boulevard that leads from the Anantasamakhom Throne Hall and the King Rama V Monument, not far from Chitralada Palace, where the royal family currently resides, down to the royal grounds at Sanam Luang and the Grand Palace where monarchs used to live. The street was lit by lights from one end to the other and each intersection featured an elaborate arch illustrating episodes from the King's life. At the Democracy Mountain there were dancing fountains, colored lights, and an orchestra with dozens of children playing traditional Thai instruments. We found chairs in an improvised theater at the corner by Wat Ratchanatda to watch a "light and sound" pageant honoring the monarch with musicians, traditionally-costumed dancers and singers. The King not only played saxophone with Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong but wrote dozens of songs which his subjects love to sing (he is also an artist, a scientist and an ardent environmentalist). After the performance we crossed the street and climbed to the top of the Phrakan Fortress to watch the fireworks show from the Royal Turf Club.

Late the next afternoon, we took a khlong taxi packed with Thais wearing yellow shirts (the King was born on a Monday, a yellow day, and on his birthday the whole country made a unified fashion statement) which let us out at a pier near the Golden Mount. We emerged again on Ratchadamnoen to await the King as he drove from Chitralada to yet another ceremony, this one with the monks, at the Grand Palace. Thais (and a few farang), wearing yellow paper hats and waving flags, were in good humor as they pushed further into the street only to be moved back again and again by the traffic cops. We were warned many times not to take photos of the King, a punishable breach of etiquette. When we saw the royal car approaching, everyone shouted and waved flags. I caught a glimpse of the royal profile and a waving hand, but he was looking towards the other side of the street. After the motorcade passed, the immense crowd surged down Ratchadamnoen toward the large parade ground at Sanan Luang where the main celebration would take place. On huge TV monitors we could see the King being blessed by the monks at Wat Phra Kaew inside the Grand Palace. At the edge of the park we found another crowded spot to watch his return. This time I could see the King and Queen clearly inside the car as Thais all around us cheered their birthday greetings. After the second viewing, we lit our candles, sang various songs (I hummed as best I could), and watched the spectacular fireworks display over our heads. I took videos, along with everyone else, but I'm sure there are more than enough on YouTube. Finally there was the long walk home. The previous night we had walked for over an hour through crowded streets, since empty taxis and tuk-tuks were non-existent. On Wednesday we hiked for a few kilmeters toward Hualampong train station and managed to flag down a tuk-tuk before our feet dropped off.

On Friday night, after the Christmas party at Siam Court, there is one more celebration to attend, another fireworks extravaganza, this one in the neighborhood at Benjakiti Park.

"Long Live the King!"

1 comment:

Marcus said...

Wonderful post, thank you Will. How I wish I'd been in Thailand this week. Thank you for bringing a little of the celebrations to our computer screens.

Long Live the King!