Long Live the King! (of Thailand)
BANGKOK, THAILAND- The Thai people love their royalty, quite possibly more than the Brits do. Friday, December 5, is the King’s Birthday and the citizens of the Kingdom of Thailand go all outto celebrate. I arrived in Bangkok on the evening of December 3, two days before the celebrations were to begin. Sitting in the back of a taxi, crawling through the evening traffic on the way to my hotel I began to notice the numerous shrines that dotted the landscape dedicated to the King. None were the same, but all included a large portrait surrounded by yellow flowers, candles, and incense sticks. After spending a few weeks in Vietnam (with homages to Ho Chi Minh) and Cambodia (where images of Hun Sen, the dictatorial prime minister) are conspicuously watching you, I just chuckled to myself that it was another Southeast Asian personality cult. However, that’s not the case in Thailand.
A military junta that overthrew the Prime Minister’s government in May currently governs Thailand, which is frequently the scene of political turmoil. The King, however, has ruled since 1946, and is the longest serving head of state in the world. Thailand has special laws called lèse majesté, which make it a crime to insult the dignity of the King and while not widely enforced, an MP was recently jailed for two years for violating lèse majesté in a speech to Parliament. The dignity of the King is not to be taken lightly. However, the King is (or was, I shall say, he is 87 now and bedridden) also an avid photographer and plays the jazz saxophone. He looks like a King that I can get behind.
For the King’s birthday, everyone wears yellow and, we’re talking pretty much 95% of the population…you see, the King was born on a Monday, and the deity that is charged with protecting Monday is associated with the color yellow. Thus, for the King, yellow is deemed a sort of power-color, and everything is bedecked in it for his birthday. Everyone. (Including me).
Around 7pm the police started herding crowds up against the sidewalk down near the Royal Palace. It looked like something big was going to happen, but I wasn’t quite sure what, since I had read in theBangkok Post that the King wasn’t going to make an earlier scheduled appearance due to his poor health…but this sure looked like we were getting ready for a royal caravan to pass. After waiting for a half hour or so, Mercedes after BMW after Mercedes started zooming down the streets. Men in crisp white uniforms sat in the back, and there was one Rolls Royce that passed. Was it his highness? I really couldn’t tell. It was going too fast.
All too soon, the crowd dispersed, and we started going with the flow, squeezing our way into Sanam Luang, where I had read that there would be a free Muay Thai match. Muay Thai is Thailand’s national martial art…similar to no-holds-barred UFC fighting. Usually they charge farangas (foreigners)$35/head for a match, so to see one for free would be pretty awesome…but first we had to shuffle through the crowd. Unbelievably packed, Sanam Luang can be described as an Olympic sized track field times three. Around the perimeter are tents where each government ministry has dedicated a carnival-type setup with activities dedicated to the King; my favorite was the one where I got to sit in a replica of the King’s chair, resulting in a photo that I’ll cheekily title “The King and I”.
Situated in the middle of the field was a large stage with another monster effigy of the King in the back. It was packed with men in crisp white suits, presumably the same ones we saw racing past in the motorcade earlier…but no sign of the King. We seemed to get there just in time, since tens of thousands of Thais were gathered expectantly around the stage, most with yellow candles already lit. When you light the candles, that’s when you know we’re talking business…and suddenly everyone bursts into the national anthem. It’s one of those moments when you can’t quite believe you’ve found yourself in the position you’re in, surrounded in a field by tons of Thais, a country with often divergent political agendas, who are coming together to celebrate the one thing about their nation that appears to bind them together more than anything else and singing their National Anthem in praise of the occasion, as lit candles are waved, everyone wears the same color, the almost-full moon looks down upon you from a clear sky, and before you know it the fireworks show begins, much closer than you might expect, coming from the middle of the crowd really, and it’s a spectacular show. I’ve always been transfixed by fireworks—I absolutely love watching them; it turns me into a small child. But the experience is alwaystransmogrified when it’s accompanied by an event worthy of a little extra celebration, and this was one of those cases.
The evening is hardly over though since even though the King might go to bed early, the rest of the people do not. There are puppet shows. There are more fireworks, which seem to begin from a different part of the field every ten minutes or so for the rest of the evening. There is a man on stilts who must be 30-40 feet in the air, battling a giant dragon (made up of ten men on stilts in costume) with a giant scepter…the dragon, of course, uses small fireworks for it’s offensive. There’s more singing, some dancing, and a whole lot of food being given out. Finally, in squeezed into the back corner of the celebrations, we find the Muay Thai arena.
IT'S OUTDOORS, AND smaller than you’d expect. There’s no seating area, but in Thailand being 5’10 means that you don’t really have to worry about he people in front of you blocking your view, which is not something I’ve often dealt with. There are four male contestants and four female contestants competing for the King’s Cup; females are up first. A smiling but brutish Thai girl kicks the crap out of a girl from Poland, and she’s into the finals. The next match, an Italian versus a Dutch girl might as well have been between two men, but the Italian wins, much to the puzzlement of the crowd. Now it’s time for the men.
I didn’t catch nationalities for the introductions, but it’s a black guy versus a Southeast Asian guy. The Southeast Asian guy wins by TKO in about ten seconds after a knee to the forehead of his opponent. The black guy didn’t look too rattled, certainly not so much as to decline to stand after ten seconds of fighting and a tap on the head…oh well. On to the next card, an Israeli versus a Brazilian. This was probably the best fight all night—hard fought on both sides, and each fighter looked in good shape after the match was over, but the Israeli won. It could’ve gone either way.
Now the women’s final: the smiling yet brutish Thai girl once again bested her opponent, and took home the King’s Cup for the women. She was easily the best female there, but to be honest the quality of the bout was a bit low…I’m no Muay Thai expert, but if you are in Bangkok and gathering fighters for the King’s Birthday, I think you could find some that are better than these four. Either way, she was the best, and she won. Now the men’s final: Israel v. The Southeast Asian guy.
After the introductions, everything makes a bit more sense…The Southeast Asian guy is Thai. Odds he wins? Probably pretty good. Sure enough, after no more than thirty seconds the Thai fighter knocks down the Israeli with the exact same move that he used on the black guy from the previous round, knee to the forehead. Sure enough, his opponent declines to stand, and the Thai wins by TKO.
Quality of the martial arts matches seen? Mediocre. Admission to see six bouts of Muay Thai in Bangkok? Free. A victory for Thailand for both the men and the women? Certainly fixed. But an opportunity to celebrate one of the most important days of the year on the grounds of the Royal Palace with hundreds of thousands of Thais in ebullient spirits Long Live the King.