Years ago and far away, in what now seems like another life time, we lived in Bangkok. Those fortunate enough to spend time, not just a vacation, but time enough to absorb some of a country’s culture, will forever have an element of that country in their souls.
As Thailand mourns the death of King Rama IX, my heart is heavy for what the country has lost and what the country now faces. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is the ordained successor to King Bhumibol – the only son and a man considered by many to be a serial philanderer. He has been married three times, has numerous children, some of whom he has denounced and is not held in the same high regard as his father. Or his sister.
I had the honour of being presented to Princess Sirindhorn when Cheshire Homes opened a new centre for the physically disabled on the outskirts of Bangkok. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn or as many Thais call her, Phra Thep – Princess Angel – is another matter. Admired by all for her steadfast devotion to the Thai people, she was elevated, with a tweak to the constitution in 1974, to Princess Royal which, in theory, would allow her a claim to the throne should something happen to the Crown Prince.
Soi Attawimon, where we lived our first time in Bangkok was a narrow street over a klong littered with daily detritus and which, in the monsoon season, regularly flooded our garden and occasionally our house. There were bonuses though to living on our little lane. Late afternoons were often punctuated by delighted squeals from our daughter, Kate, when she would feed sugar cane to the elephant ambling back to his home. We also had an early warning system of any coup. Tanks and trucks filled with soldiers would rumble along from military barracks at the far end of the soi. Being essentially a dead street did have its drawbacks though. We were regularly delayed as it was closed and city traffic idled to an even slower pace than usual, in order to allow the Crown Prince clear passage.
The Glorious Twelfth is not only the start of the grouse shooting season, it is also the now Dowager Queen Sirikit’s birthday, and so a public holiday. Kate, whose birthday is also on August 12th, grew up believing the whole world stopped for her one day every year.
There were many happy occasions in Thailand. From the serene to the surreal.
Loi Krathong, which falls on the full moon of the twelfth month in the Thai calendar – usually the end of November – is a charming ritual. Baskets woven from banana leaves into ornate shapes are filled with flowers, trinkets, incense, candles and coins, sometimes even nail clippings or hair so character flaws are released, and are then floated down the waterways taking away misdeeds and paying obeisance to the water spirits. The Chao Phraya, the river flowing through Bangkok, is the main repository for the floating mass of twinkling baskets but, in my mind’s eye, it is our little fish pond where the spirit of loi krathong is wedged.
Inordinate skill is required to weave banana leaves into a floating receptacle. A skill I did not have despite expert guidance from Es, our maid. She fashioned a basket in the shape of a lotus blossom for Kate which was duly filled with flowers, a candle and a small doll, “For to be lucky”. The house was dark and our garden became a magical wonderland as lights from the soi sent shadows dancing. Kate, as she had been taught by Es, put her hands together in a deep wai and slid her loi krathong into the pond. Water splashed up and, as we watched her basket eddy amongst the reeds and curious gold fish, my two-year old turned to me laughing at her wet nightie and said, “Mai pen lai, Mummy!” And she was right. It didn’t matter. The world was in harmony in that darkened garden – if only for a moment.
Surreal came from the machinations of monkeys in Wang Kaew stealing our breakfast of papaya and pineapple when, as I shouted and flailed my arms at the intruders, Kate reminded me that being kind to kleptomaniac monkeys was considered good luck in Thailand. Es taught her well.
And Edward was born in Bangkok. Not on an auspicious date in the Thai calendar but a day to be forever celebrated in our family. Our children were playfully pinched and pampered by Thais wherever we went – scooped away the moment we sat at restaurant table – to be heard chortling as they devoured sticky rice and mango with their new friends.
And so, as Thailand mourns King Bhumibol, my heart is with them and my deepest hope for that gracious country is that the transition to a new monarch is peaceful. That, in the not too distant future, Thailand again becomes the Land of Smiles.