by MOLLY O'BRIEN
Highways are the same everywhere. It's what you see on the side of the road that changes from country to country. In France, it was wide fields of gold flowers. In the Czech Republic it was the tiniest farm houses imaginable. In Thailand, it's the shrines: covered in patterns so small they’re hard to make out, colorful and gazebo-like, the tips of the roofs turned up like elf shoes.
We drive by so many of these on our way to all the tourist spots. And I don't feel satisfied until we drive by an open shack peddling...yes...about two dozen of the shrines! They’re stacked against each other like lawn chairs. Everything has a source. Everything started out in a warehouse at some point.
Beside the shrines (I listen to Purity Ring’s debut album all through the trip, trying for language synergy), there are countless posters and banners and huge framed pictures of the king. King Rama IX. Long live the king! In his picture he looks so kind. Kind and wise — kingly traits. And he's everywhere. He's sitting on the walls of all the shopping malls, he's hanging on the doors of beauty salons and auto repair shops.
Only here's the thing — we're not allowed to talk about the king.
"At all? We can't even say nice things about him?"
"Just...don't talk about him." This is my sister, the Bangkok expert, who has been teaching English to little girls at a Catholic school for the past two years. (Buddhist girls at Catholic school: they give their English and American teachers Christmas presents without understanding why.) Kaitlin knows best. She knows whether the ice in the milk tea will be contaminated, she knows how to order food and direct taxis and bargain for counterfeit Beats headphones. And she knows that we shouldn't talk about the king.
But the king is the elephant in my hotel room. (A couple days later, we ride elephants in the forested part of an island. An elephant's skin is hairy and wrinkly, somehow tough and tender at the same time.) I can't stop thinking about him. The Thai people love him unconditionally, or so it seems. Do they love his wife as much as they love him? (They don't love his only son. In the media, the heir apparent is a thrice-married playboy who spends mad money on his European vacations.) What's his daily routine? Does he have sex? (Probably not — lately he's been laid up in the hospital, as he is 85 years old and sort of infirm.) Does he go on the internet?
When I google him, I click his wikipedia entry and receive a message: I'm blocked. You can't read items about the king from any outlet that might allow negative criticism. You can't critique the king yourself, either — lèse majesté laws in Thailand are so harsh that you could end up in jail for liking an anti-king page on Facebook or going on a blog rant against him. The king has been ruling since 1946, he’s mega-rich in a poor country, and he has supported several military regimes. Then again, he also helped transition Thailand to a democratic government, and he waged a War on Drugs that actually seemed to work for a while. Perhaps complicated feelings, combined with a law that forbids you to criticize your leader, have a lowest common denominator of simple adoration.
So the king appears with a constant rosy glow, a slick poster-glossy sheen of cleanliness (and thus, godliness). My family goes to the movie theater at Paragon, a megamall on Sukhumvit Road, and before Pitch Perfect begins, we watch a three-minute pro-king video with accompanying glorifying song. The song begins with one voice and ends with a lot (I can't tell how many, but at least as many as you can hear in "We Are The World"), and by its close, I have the shivers. Imagining this kind of montage (happy farmers, happy blue-collar workers, happy civil servants, benevolent leader smiling down from throne) played in American cinemas makes me laugh, especially when I picture George W. Bush or even Obama replacing Rama IX. There’s a big difference between “presidential” and “regal.”
We leave Bangkok and go to a resort on Koh Chang. I forget about the king — resorts remove you from people and their concerns. I drink rum punch, learn Thai words, watch the comedic duo of bartenders ask my little sister why her cheeks are so red.
New Year's Eve arrives and we go to the hotel party, a garbled event with a contortionist and a ladyboy cabaret show and a magician who keeps tormenting guests and cackling. One of the MCs is German; when each act ends, he tells us that “applause is allowed!!!” At one point, they raffle off a bunch of giant teddy bears. “Come to the stage...if you are five year old,” says the German. A Swedish kid sprints to the front, snags his prize. “Yes...you have won zis teddy bee-ah...because you are five year old,” says the German.
Dozens of resorts occupy the same strip of beach, and the way they compete with each other for the best midnight fireworks show is the way the American Revolution must have looked.
We go back to the room, I put the television on, and the king is on just about every Thai news network. His health isn’t great, and that appears to be the news for the new year. I asked Kaitlin how the country might react if he died. (If, as if he might not die at all for some reason.) “Ohhh, I don’t even know.” It would be bad. Or rather, it will be bad. I’ll still be long gone before it happens. My sister might still be there. I will want news of the loss — I’ll want to know what people in the streets are saying, what the funeral will be like. I’ll want to know what they will do with all of those hanging pictures.
Molly O'Brien is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about fainting.
Photographs by the author.
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