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The Search for a Truly Awesome Monarch is Over

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

Editor’s Note:

While the CT’s chief aim is, of course, to tell you, our faithful readers, about authentic, unspoiled, interesting, unorthodox destinations, we also will not shirk a more basic journalistic responsibility. If we encounter God on Earth, or an alternative form of icon-worship, we will report it.

An Amalgam of Elvis Presley, Robin Hood and God… in Thailand
Rob Jordan, South East Asia Editor, reports from Bangkok
His ceremonial name is Phrabat Somdej Phra Paramindra Maha Bhumibol Adulyadej Mahitaladhibet Ramadhibodi Chakrinarubodindara Sayamindaradhiraj Boromanatbophit. His more common name, Bhumibol Adulyadej, means “Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power.” But you can call him The Great for short.

To those who know Thailand’s king – and millions who don’t really know him at all – he is an amalgam of Elvis Presley, Robin Hood and God. As the world’s longest reigning monarch, Bhumibol is Crash Davis to Queen Elizabeth II’s Nuke LaLoosh.You better believe Thailand is going to throw a bender when the king turns 80 on December 5.

Evidence? How about the giant images of Bhumibol at every major traffic intersection, on every government building, Coca-Cola distributor, kitchen supply showroom and scrap yard? There’s the bespectacled monarch in royal robes, waving gamely from a palace balcony. There he is as a young Buddhist acolyte in saffron robes. There he is in military dress whites, reviewing the troops. There he is planting a ceremonial rice seedling, overseeing dam construction, sitting in a tractor, bird watching, trumpet playing, photographing, drinking water.

The Bhumibol industry includes wall calendars, clocks, personal schedule books and yellow bracelets modeled after Lance Armstrong’s “Live Strong” bands. The king usually appears in profile smiling wanly, pondering something. Toddlers scamper around in little yellow T-shirts that proclaim “We Love the King.” The Thai version of a “Fear This” sticker in the rearview window is one that proclaims, “Long Live Our Beloved King.”

There’s a lot to love. Bhumibol is an accomplished jazz saxophonist who has played with the likes of Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Jack Teargarden. He’s a talented photographer, sailor and painter. His writings include tomes such as The Story of Tong Daeng, a tale about the King’s pet basenji. “His majesty the King,” the book begins, “entertains the opinion that Tong Daeng is a common dog who is uncommon.”

Seriously, the man is cool. He holds patents for a waste water aerator and rainmaking technology. He has for years worked to support sustainable development, protect the environment and support traditional Thai crafts. His humanitarian work earned him a United Nations Lifetime Achievement Award, whatever that is.
He’s beloved in part because no one is allowed to say otherwise. Laws prohibit badmouthing the royal family and offer up to 15 years imprisonment to those who can’t shut their traps. This past April, Thais were shocked when someone somewhere posted to You Tube a brief satire of the king showing him with animated googly eyeballs. In a show of democratic compromise, the military government promptly banned the website.
So, don’t bother asking why the king’s rides include a Boeing 737 and two Airbus jets when most Thais ride scooters. And don’t even think about questioning the circumstances under which the king’s predecessor – his brother – was assassinated. The 1946 palace shooting officially remains unsolved.
None of the Thais seem to care. As anyone who’s been to the Land of Smiles recently can tell you, Mondays are a good time to gauge the Thais’ royal sentiments. Because the king was born on a Monday, which is symbolized by the color yellow, every Thai and his mother becomes a walking neon billboard of King worship on that day. They wear yellow polo shirts mostly, but toddlers seem fond of yellow T-shirts that say “I love the king,” and yellow button-ups are considered cool too.

Any day of the week, yellow flags line highways, and the king’s serene face gazes down from billboards every few miles.

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