Thailand in mourning

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CULTURAL SENSITIVITY: If you know any tourist coming soon to Thailand, please spread the word…

Please know that the King of Thailand is highly revered and every Thai has a personal bond with him. He was considered as the father of the nation, and as a unifying figure. It might be expected that the next few months might be a troubled period, but hopefully the nation will stay unified throughout this hardship.

king-2Here’s a cultural analogy to help you understand the depth of this sad news. Remember back in 1997 when Lady Diana passed away in Paris? The entire world was devastated and so shocked, especially in Britain of course, because Lady Diana had such a good, pure heart that we were all sensitive to her loss. Well, this is the same level of shock and emotional devastation that is sweeping Thailand right now. And it’s probably even deeper because every Thai feels like King Bhumibol Adulyadej was their father. He was a humble, hard-working person who led Thai people by example, showing the way by being an active and benevolent monarch. He reigned for a whopping 70 years, so he has been the one and only fatherly figure for most Thai people. He earned his immense popularity “by traveling seemingly indefatigably throughout the country, especially in his younger days on the throne, speaking with people from all walks of life and starting thousands of projects to help the poor and marginalized”. “A keen musician and yachtsman in his youth, King Bhumibol’s interest in science led him to focus particularly on water management and irrigation projects. He patented a water wheel and a cloud-seeding rainmaking method – once demonstrating it for visiting Singaporean officials.”

Perhaps you, as a foreigner, don’t personally feel sad or shocked, depending on the length of time you’ve spent here and on the number of connections you’ve made with Thai people. But Thai people feel very emotional right now, so please behave accordingly: be kind and gentle; find nice, simple words to show Thai people that you share their grief and sorrow; be sensitive, informed, compassionate; show some sympathy. Respect Thai people’s mourning and sadness.

CLOTHING: The Thai government has just asked to wear black clothes for a month, which is mandatory (some people might wear white). In practice for us foreigners, this means: do not wear any vivid colours at all; better dress in black, or else in dark clothes (dark blue, grey… that should be okay). Then it will be recommended that people wear white or black for a year, but we foreigners probably won’t need to follow that rule (let’s wait for a month and see). It’s important that you dress up accordingly to show respect and solidarity with our Thai friends. If you don’t have black clothes, dark clothes should be okay, but better purchase some black clothing to wear over the next month. So, just to recap: you don’t have to wear black, but show at least decency by wearing dark clothes and by avoiding vivid colours at all costs.

LIBEL LAWS: Please be aware that the government strictly enforces Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté laws, which prohibit discussion of the King’s health and succession plans. So do not talk/write about his succession – let’s just see what happens. This period is probably going to be a very troubled period politically speaking. Although we might be affected by the political situation that will ensue, it’s not our business in the first place. So let’s not comment or speculate on that.

APOLOGISE: If you ever feel that Thai people are offended or feel upset about any of your behaviour, stop it and apologise to them by doing a polite ‘wai’, bending your head down.

Hua Hin mourns the king

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Four Things to Know About Thailand’s Next King, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn

All eyes are on Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is set to become Thailand’s new monarch following the death of his father King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Thailand's Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn watches the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony in central Bangkok

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn 

Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn inherits the throne of one of the world’s richest monarchies, during a time when the country is riven by political schisms. Here is what we know about the Crown Prince:Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn rushed home from Germany on Wednesday as the palace reportedof his father’s deteriorating health. After news of the King’s death broke on Thursday, Thai junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha announced that the Crown Prince would ascend the throne, reportsthe Associated Press (AP). “The government will inform the National Legislative Assembly that His Majesty the King appointed his heir on Dec. 28, 1972,” said Prayuth in a televised address.

His ascendancy to the throne to be delayed

Junta leader Prayuth said that the Crown Prince asked for a delay in his being proclaimed King so that he can mourn with the country, reports AP. Prayuth declared a one-year mourning period for the King, saying the death is a tragedy for Thais. “He was a King that was loved and adored by all. The reign of the King has ended and his kindness cannot be found anywhere else,” Prayuth said.

The only male heir

Born in 1952 in Bangkok’s Royal Dusit Palace, the 64-year-old is the only son and male heir of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit. He spent most of his teenage years in private colleges in Europe and Australia — where he graduated from Royal Military College. His career in the armed forces saw him return to Thailand as a military pilot. Channel News Asia reports that the Crown Prince developed his passion for flying after learning it in the U.S.


(Courtesy of Marius Andre Mek)

Concerns over scandals

The Crown Prince has been embroiled in scandals over the years, and it is thought that many Thais would prefer his younger sister Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, 61, taking the throne — even though women are not in the line of succession for the Thai monarchy. He divorced his former consort and third wife Princess Srirasmi in 2014, after several of her relatives were arrested for abusing their royal-family status for money. Srirasmi relinquished her titles and returned to life as a commoner. Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks showed Thai elites expressing concerns about Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn becoming King.

The Crown Prince’s exploits have been kept out of local news through Thailand’s restrictive and broadly applied lèse-majesté laws, which protect the royal family from defamation.

Junta’s fears

According to the Guardian, the ruling junta were concerned over Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s friendship with the ousted former Prime Minister and telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra. Some have speculated that two coup d’états that removed the now exiled tycoon and later his sister Yingluck Shinawatra were over fears that the Crown Prince would find a base among Thaksin’s populist supporters.

The junta has lately attempted to shore up his appeal with efforts that include Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn taking part in a mass cycle ride that was nationally televised, reports the New York Times. –

Glimpses behind the exalted persona of Thailand’s king

By Denis D. Gray

The body language was as stiff as the gilded robes and bemedaled uniforms he wore. The face rarely betrayed even a flicker of emotion. He was the king, wrote one biographer, who never smiled.

And indeed when appearing before the public or during the thousands of state and religious ceremonies over which he presided, King Bhumibol Adulyadej assumed the role of “dhammaraja,” the impassive, righteous Buddhist monarch, an heir to 800 unbroken years of royal rule, the dominant figure in Thailand’s modern history.

But my own most vivid recollections of the world’s longest reigning monarch, who died Thursday at the age of 88, are rather different.


The king and his queen

The last time I met the king, in 2008, he was dressed in a Western suit, relaxing on a sofa — and smiling. Behind closed doors of Bangkok’s Chitralada Palace, Bhumibol was seemingly enjoying the repartee with a small group of foreign journalists.

Far from the often stilted, vague language of his public speeches, he punctuated his remarks with colorful anecdotes and jokes in excellent English, talking for more than two hours about jazz, his family and beloved pet dogs, growing old and the downsides of golf courses and dams. Over the years, some of the king’s advisers noted that he seemed more at ease with foreigners because there did not exist the barriers of protocol as with most Thai subjects.

That evening was one of several times I glimpsed some of the contrasting sides of a complex personality, one that may never be fully plumbed given the almost godlike aura with which he was invested and a strict law forbidding criticism of the monarch and royal family.

There was the king’s rigid adherence to tradition and his modern informality, the severe demeanor and ready humor, his simple lifestyle and his reported status as the world’s richest royal with a net worth of $30 billion. And he fused a Thai Buddhist self with a Western persona, perhaps natural since Bhumibol was born in Massachusetts and spent his formative years in Switzerland with his much-loved mother, a commoner who may have imparted some of her down-to-earth ways.

“My mother praised me when I did something good and then the next moment she would say, ‘Don’t float.’ She put me in a balloon and then pricked it,” he told me in a 1982 interview, one of the very few he gave.

It was a very different time, and he was in some respects a different man, when I first came in contact with the king in the late 1970s, accompanying him on trips to the northern mountains, the rice paddies of the northeast and the Muslim communities of the deep south.At the 2008 gathering and earlier, a palpable sadness also suffused his critical comments about the course Thailand had taken as it shed traditional moral values in favor of a me-first, greed-is-good society, criticism he had only obliquely expressed in public.

king-familyThen, some 80 percent of the population still lived in the countryside and Thailand had yet to become an economic dynamo linked to global trends and a magnet for foreign tourists by the millions. The 1970s were perhaps the last decade of the old Thailand, with its charming customs and picturesque villages along with widespread poverty.

This was also the heyday of Bhumibol’s reign as he set about initiating and personally monitoring projects in health, education, poverty alleviation, water management and eradication of opium.

“They say that a kingdom is like a pyramid: the king on top and the people below. But in this country it’s upside down,” the king said in the interview, his facing breaking into a broad smile as he pointed to his shoulder. “That’s why I sometimes have a pain around here.”

In his 40s, the king was at his prime, jogging 3 kilometers a day followed by push-ups, and I shed a few pounds trailing him up steep hillsides along with paunchy bureaucrats and panting courtiers.

During one of several grueling, consecutive days, the king, queen and eldest daughter arrived in the morning by helicopter at an agriculture experimental station in the northern province of Chiang Mai, the king having gone to bed at 2 a.m. the night before to prepare for the day’s work. Dressed in a gray sports jacket and camouflaged combat boots, he carried a 1:50,000-scale map, 35mm camera and walkie-talkie.

The atmosphere was mellow and enchanting, the French menu superb. But from the royal table came snatches of conversation: dams and weirs … soil content … fertilizer. “I think the queen may have told you: We don’t have a private life,” the king later said.The day proved another whirlwind of treks on foot and by jeep with tribal people cataloguing their woes, officials briefing and the king asking for results through both stern demands and gentle cajoling. At 8:30 p.m. the royals returned to Bhuping palace, high above Chiang Mai city, where the queen hurriedly changed from her jogging shoes and pants to meet some 100 guests.

king-ike_While much of the regal formality was dropped on upcountry trips, in Bangkok’s palaces and reception halls, officials, courtiers and favor-seekers would prostrate themselves, crawling forward on their hands and knees before speaking to him using an archaic royal vocabulary.

A month after the station visit, the king was back in the hills, this time meeting with five Lahu who had come to seek his help in reclaiming land another tribe had taken from them. One was picking his teeth with a sprig of straw, another chewed noisily on betel nut. Rivulets of sweat mingled with the reddish upland dust on the king’s face as he spread a map on the ground and dropped to his knees to study the problem, the Lahu casually ranged around him.

The king clearly savored such encounters, bantering with rural dwellers and trying to solve their problems, even marital ones. He once told me the story of a hill tribesman whose wife ran away after he had purchased her with two pigs. The king decided the husband deserved compensation that would allow her freedom. “The only trouble was I gave the money,” he joked. “So the woman belonged to me.”

The king’s time in the countryside probably did much to shape his idealized vision of Thailand, one more rooted in a self-sufficient agricultural society than urban aspirations and values that were taking hold.

In the late 1980s, during another meeting with a few foreign journalists, the king said rapid growth had outpaced social and spiritual development, leading to both moral and environmental depredations. The poor and the powerless in the way of the barreling economic engine, he said, stood to lose their traditional livelihoods, their land and their laudable qualities.

“Thailand was built on compassion,” he said in an undertone of melancholy. He spoke of now-vanished huts in the forests — “when there were still forests” — where travelers could have free lodging and food left behind by others.

obamaIn my 1982 interview, for National Geographic magazine, Bhumibol indicated that in modern times royal success would depend a great deal on the person who sits on the throne rather than the throne itself. And that his success as a monarch came from his own merit rather than mere inheritance.

To drive home the point, the king said, “The father of one of our ladies-in-waiting, Prince Sri Visar, was very good at reading palms. He used to take mine in his hand, look at it, and say: ‘Your Majesty, the lines show that you are a self-made man.’”

The king said the throne had sunk to vulnerable depths following the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932.

“When I was young we had nothing,” the king recalled, his normally composed voice taking on a quiver of emotion. “The carpets and upholstery in the palace were full of holes. The floors creaked. Everything was so old. Yes, we had a piano, an upright given to us by the Fine Arts Department. But it was out of tune.”

“There was none of this,” he said, motioning toward finely brocaded upholstery, plush silks and a mantelpiece crowded with photographs of world leaders the king had known. A few feet away from where we sat stood a magnificent, immaculately polished grand piano. Aides assured us that it was in perfect tune. – Associated Press


About 2bagsandapack

Lifetime journalist, author, magazine editor and publisher, now semi-retired and traveling the world. My plan, after living in Costa Rica for 14 months, was to visit a new country in southern Europe every three months to experience the culture and the challenge of adapting to a new environment, while on a fixed income. That plan was sidetracked when I was offered a job in Indonesia, providing an opportunity to explore Asia. Indonesia lasted for a 4 wonderful years but I have now moved on to Hua Hin, Thailand.
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