In March of 1978 at Bangkok’s Oriental Hotel I declined the receptionist’s offer of a room at the swank newly opened tower [photo essay]. I asked to be lodged, instead, in the hotel’s fabled old building. I followed the porter who carried my luggage past a maid in uniform who said “sawadee ka.” I reciprocated with my own greetings: “sawadee krup,” self-consciously using the proper male speaker gender ending. Never mind my accent, the heretofore reserved porter was delighted and felt free to speak to me. The suite the maid was cleaning, he said, was where the writer Joseph Conrad used to stay when in town. I was given another suite on that same second floor of the 19th century building. This one had been used by Somerset Maugham. The entrance to the suite was a foyer between the bedroom and the living room, both heavily wood-paneled. When the sun rose tomato-red early the next morning, I stood at the window of the living room and watched the farmer’s and fishermen’s floating market of boats on the Chao Phraya River. I was mesmerized by the full pallet of colors which must have also beguiled those two master painters of words.
Today the Oriental is “owned by the Chinese,” as our Thai tour guide said wistfully. It is a part of the Mandarin hotel chain. “We Thais by nature are not confrontational,” continued Ron, the guide. “I don’t know if it is because of Buddhism; you know, ‘next life.’ For us everything is very slow. Very easy. Chinese who came here 100 years ago with nothing now own many things, restaurants, hotels. The Chinese were working for Thais, now it is the other way around.” I looked hard for a trace of irony in Ron’s voice, as we had been told that he had stopped being a monk recently when a turn of his family’s fortune forced him to try to earn a living as a guide.
Chinese merchants used to occupy this area when the king decided to build his palace here in the late 18th century. Back then he was able to simply relocate them. Looking around, one could make a case that art truly imitated life: like the market the many buildings in the palace grounds presented a bewildering bazaar of architectural styles. Indeed, the place was a canvass for the Thais’ artistic exuberance. Marble steps of the Library were engulfed in highly stylized banisters. The gold of gilded Stupa and the multi-colored mosaic tiles of the many pillars were dazzling. Ron’s halting, sometimes disjointed, commentary only added to our confusion. “We did not have our own architects. They were from India, Cambodia, and China,” the guide said. There were also some buildings in European styles. One was a mixture of European and Thai motifs. “The general plan might be like the Cambodian palace complex in Phnom Penh. But those are 1000 years old and ours is only 200,” Ron said. “The eight towers of that building is like in Angkor Wat. That lion we brought from Cambodia and the Cambodians are not happy about this.” On the other hand, Ron reminded us, “we had bigger Buddhas in our old capital, Sukhothai, but the invading Burmese destroyed them.”
Even these relatively new Thai buildings required repair. “The repairs have not been done well and by good craftsmen,” Ron pointed out and rubbed his fingers as he continued, “no money.”
The kings of the present Thai dynasty have assumed the title of “Rama,” an incarnation of Vishnu. Surrounding the roofs of their Grand Palace — the oldest building in the complex– are the ribbon-like chorfah (sky tassels) meant to mark a bond between heaven and earth. “The King and Queen do not live here now. They live seven kilometers from here,” Ron said. “These buildings are used only for ceremonial purposes. When the King’s son died in the recent Tsunami, he was laid in state here,” Ron pointed to one building. Inside another building there were a nine tier umbrella for the King and a seven tier one for the Crown Prince. “The Monarch was crowned here,” the guide said.
The King’s great grandfather did live in this compound. He is the Thai King –Mongkut or Rama IV, from 1851 to 1868– who is best known to the world because of the movie, the King and I. “The government does not allow that movie to be shown in Thailand,” Ron said in an approving voice. “I will not see it even if it might be available in DVD. Many Thais don’t want to see it because it does not show proper manners. I think in one scene the King is shown kicking someone.”
King Rama IV gets credit for the final version of the name of Thailand’s capital. The Thais do not call it Bangkok. They call it Krung Thep, which is the short version of the official name, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon (The City of Angel), which itself is the short version of the capital’s full ceremonial name, the world’s longest for any place:
“Thai school children are taught the full name,” Ron said, “but they do not fully understand all the words in it.” This is because many of those words are from the two ancient Indian languages of Sanskrit and Paali. The full name has been translated into English as follows:
“The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn”
The Thais are said to love their current King, Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX). Crowned 63 years ago, “he is the longest reigning head of state,” Ron pointed out with pride. The King’s ascent to the throne was unexpected. He was studying in Switzerland to become a jazz clarinet player when the incumbent monarch who was his brother mysteriously died in his bed. Duty compelled him to accept the throne. King Bhumibol Adulyadej has managed to stay above the militarized politics of Thailand. His success may prove to be a liability now that his influential constituencies of the educated privileged elite are at loggerheads with those who have benefited from the Thai version of democracy. Not uncommon in developing countries, democracy has been redacted to popularism. The multitude of poor have supported the elite’s nemesis in the elections, a tycoon called Thaksin Shinawatra whose amassed wealth ironically shields him in popular imagination from the temptation of further corruption in a suspect environment that created him in the first place.
In 1978, a student drove the taxi that took me from the old Bangkok airport to the town on a two-lane rural road. He was highly critical of the regime, a radical and a pessimist. This time I went back from the town in a van as the guide sang the praise of the King whose humble visage adorned the many banners lining the wide boulevard leading to the shining new airport. I imagined the guide to be the contemporary avatar of the student. His type had occupied this airport late last year preventing all departures in protest against Thaksin.
As it happened, our own departure was now halted for more than an hour at the passport check window. The lines were extraordinarily long. I had never seen such a time-consuming control of the departing passengers’ passports. No explanation was offered. When we were finally seated on the plane, I noted another inexplicable oddity. The Muzak that the Thai Airways chose to pipe into our cabin on this late February day was a familiar Christmas song: “You better watch out, you better watch out, Santa Clause is coming to town,” sang an American crooner. [photo essay]