Monday, June 18, 2007

King of Siam

I spent just a few hours in Bangkok airport and noticed a few things. First, the alphabet is made up of theatrically loopy letters that are reminiscent of the Hindi alphabet. When I saw that I silently thanked the missionaries who invented a Latinized script for Vietnamese. While the Vietnamese alphabet has all sorts of bewildering accents and other markings, it is at least comprehensible on a basic level. It will surely make a difference in getting around Vietnam.

But the most striking thing about Bangkok’s airport is the unavoidable presence of Thailand’s King. As we came off the runway, every jet way was adorned with his bespectacled face. Inside the airport, I was followed by his peaceful glance. It reminded me of Mao in China or Ataturk in Turkey, only these men are dead and they actually made major important contributions to society. As far as I know, the Thai King is merely a figure head, a national symbol that stays out of politics. But judging by the coverage of his deeds, you would think that he’s behind everything pleasant and honorable that happens in Thailand. Waiting at the gate, the Thai news service ran a five minute retrospective on his long rein, flashing pictures of the bookish monarch opening schools, greeting dignitaries and making speeches. Many pictures showed the ruler in an ornate throne greeting prostrated subjects. At the end of the Thai Air flight, they showed another feel-good retrospective in honor of the 60th anniversary of the King’s coronation. But I noticed that he was crowned in March 1946.

While flying over Laos, I read the English language Bangkok Times, which carried a three page feature on the King’s initiative to help drought-stricken farmers by paying for rain-making planes. Supposedly, planes spray a type of cloud-attracting material that brings much needed rain. If we accept what certainly sounds like dubious science, then the modern King of Thailand makes rain.

It all seems rather illiberal—a rain making King who’s face adorns state-run planes, buildings and media and takes credit for many of the achievements of those actually in power. But the King is probably much more popular than Thailand’s corrupt politicians, none of whom, it would seem, can make rain.