Queen’s Day, Travels With Pancha & Rosalie
Queen’s Day – The Queen of Thailand gets her Adulation
The King of Thailand, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1927. He married his wife, Queen Sirikit, in 1950. He’s the longest-reigning monarch in the world – and one of the few left.
In Thailand, the Queen’s birthday is celebrated for a week. We hear some whispered complaints that Queen Sirikit is a little too fond of adoration. The Thai people have been through a lot lately, and some are speaking less kindly of their aging royals.
But then there’s the group of Thai ladies Rosalie met who fervently believe that the King and Queen are being given a special elixir which will allow them to live forever. Rosalie tells them it’s simply not possible, but they remain confident in their rulers’ immortality. Perhaps the rarity of public portraits showing them as octogenarians reinforces this belief.
On a warm evening in the middle of August, Rosalie and I take a walk to a public square a half-mile from our room. Along the way, at the end of Khao San Road, there’s a temporary stage set up with oversize amplifiers. A Thai woman addresses the Khao San crowd in the sing-song sounds of the Thai language.
She says ‘Sa-wad-eee-kaaaaaa’ (“hello”), with the ‘kaaaa’ ascending in pitch and lingering as if she’s breathing helium.
I don’t mean this offensively, because sometimes the Thai language sounds quite beautiful, but mostly the Thai women sound like cats, cats who’ve acquired language skills. After praising Queen Sirikit and throwing some jokes to the crowd, the jokes and laughter rising and falling in lilting tones of feline felicity, she is very pleased to introduce some Thai dancers, whose gently undulating bodies and graceful hand gestures immediately draw the attention of every man on the street whose eyes still work.
Rosalie and I walk on. A few blocks away, we see another stage and realize that these street-corner mini-festivals are happening all over the city. The Thai really enjoy getting behind a microphone.
We pass vendors standing at foodcarts who pass out plates piled high with steaming noodles. They keep trying to give us noodles because they’re free, in honor of the Queen. I see many people with heaping dishes of noodles, dishes in both hands, and for once the poor people of Bangkok are going to bed tonight with very full bellies.
We can now see the square across four or five traffic lanes. In this spot, the cars, tuk-tuks, motorscooters, motorcycles, trucks and buses are zipping along at high speed. There is one incredibly long stoplight, which tempts everyone except the very old to dodge traffic rather than wait for the light. The traffic moves very fast here, but only a few blocks away the vehicles slow to a stand-still lasting a half-hour or more. At certain times of the day there’s just no good reason at all to take a taxi on any of the surface streets. Like many cities in Asia, Bangkok is always outgrowing itself.
Trying to cross a busy street on foot in Bangkok is an act of faith in the gods. You hope the gods will inspire drivers to see you and slow down. More often than not, they don’t. Like India, the bigger your vehicle, the more right you have to dominate the road. Pedestrians are at the bottom of the pecking order. Even the ubiquitous Buddhist monks, revered everywhere in Thailand, look like they’re taking their chances when they cross a street in Bangkok.
Still, traffic is much more orderly and less threatening than in India. Except for motorcycle riders, people always drive on the correct side of the road. And, unlike India, practically no one honks the horn. It’s eerie to ride the quiet roads in Bangkok after experiencing hearing loss from horns that blare at every moment in Delhi or Kolkata.
The square has large ornamented portraits of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit. They show them at different ages, together and alone. We see the King as a little boy, as a pensive young man, as a distinguised ruler with the dress of a king. He apparently likes to take photographs, because many of the pictures show him with a camera. His wife is also depicted at various ages. In one photograph, she’s inspecting food products. In another, she’s doting over a child, posing in her role as the mother of her people. Both of them are strikingly attractive.
At night the square has a few sidewalks dedicated to small-time vendors, who set up their wares on flimsy display racks or rugs laid on the pavement. We take a stroll, ready to dodge motorcycles and step around vendors. On our way back, night has fallen, the King and Queen look down from their monumental portraits, and suddenly fireworks explode directly over our heads. It’s dizzying to look straight up at the fireworks. Rosalie worries that sparks and flame will fall on us. After some time, she realizes her hair isn’t going to catch fire and we watch the brilliant, blazing, painfully loud explosions in awe. Fifteen minutes later, the fireworks are finished, and we make our way back to our room.
Somewhere in the city, an elderly couple are dressed for bed. The man smiles at his beloved, reminiscing about their many years together. Although she’s old and somewhat frail, he can still see the faint outline of youthful beauty that so mysteriously lingers in her. She comes away from the balcony, where she’s been watching fireworks in the distance. A servant stands nearby, waiting for the couple to drink from the two small cups on his tray.