Saturday, July 7, 2007

The King, (Queen) and I
Thailand's royal couple, King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his wife, Queen Mom Rajawongse Sirikit (translated: "Glory and Splendor of the Kittiyakara family") are the world's longest reigning monarchs. He celebrates his 60th year on the throne this year, but we go back a long way, the King, Queen and I. I recall seeing them in a limo and waving wildly when I was last here in 1963. He was no JFK, but otherwise extremely cool and cloaked in not a little mystery and intrigue, even for a slightly more curious-than-average 10-year-old farang boy.

His Royal Majesty was born in the US where his father was a surgeon, and educated in Switzerland. King B plays jazz sax and has jammed with the some of best of the old mainstream masters, including Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Lionel Hampton and Benny Carter. He was frequently photographed in shades through the years because he is blind in one eye from a mysterious auto accident and ascended the throne after the equally mysterious death of his older brother, a death that some whisper the King of Thai Swing may have had a direct hand in.

Queen Sirikit was a stone cold babe, pure and simple. She was perhaps my first Asian fantasy woman, when I was almost too young to understand what I was feeling on seeing her pictures and during my one, very brief in-person glimpse.

They are beloved and revered here, so much so that it is crime, lèse majesté, to speak ill or otherwise make light of them. I have been hushed and shushed a couple times since arriving when I impulsively have gone into my slightly inebriated "The Queen was my fantasy babe" rap among Thais and foreigners alike. Earlier this year an elderly, drunken Swiss expat in the northern city of Chiang Mai was sentenced to a prison term that probably would have exceeded the rest of his natural life for spray painting photographs of the King, apparently due to his frustration at his inability to legally purchase alcohol on the King's birthday, a national holiday. (He has since reportedly been pardoned by His Benevolent Royal Majesty and subsequently quickly and quietly deported).

The Royal Portraits are ubiquitous here: him mostly, otherwise together and occasionally with their three girls and one (troubled) male heir in shops, private homes, highway and cityscape billboards, temples, girlie bars, etc and in a variety of poses and decades that span the swinging sixties to present day. It's a cult of personality that exceeds anything I imagined when I first went to China and is nothing that I recall from my time here so long ago.

In China, while the unspoken force of the Central Government hangs like a shroud over a lot of otherwise routine life, in major metropolitan areas one easily sees the easy-going Col Saunders and grimacing visages of Ronald McDonald dozens of times daily; much more so than, of course, Mao, or even current leaders such as Huo Jintao and Wen Jiabao - even in State offices Huo and Wen's portraits are relatively rare. I've never been to North Korea, of course, but I imagine even the Dear Leader must envy the Thai Royal Family's public exposure.

I've become something of an amateur afciando of Thai Royal Family portraits, beginning on my first visit to the Hong Kong Thai consulate on what would become an extended, frustrating and occasonally amusing attempt at securing a "M" or media visa to work here, one that has not ended by the way. I had not seen a picture of the Royal Pair since the 1960s and was momentarily stunned to see that they had aged. (Not that I had, of course...) But my royal fantasy pinup babe now resembled, well, it went like this:

"The queen, you know, Queen Sirikit, she, uh, how old is she now?" I asked the consulate official, a rather stern officious woman in charge of interviewing foreign interloping journalists. She ignored my attempt at friendly small talk but I blundered on. "She, she looks like Tammy Faye Bakker now! What happened?" I don't think my case manager knew who Tammy Faye Bakker was, but the unfortunate inference was probably clear and may explain why my premliminary visa approval took 6 rather than 2 weeks.

Here I've spotted two outstanding photos only on one very small bar. The first is black and white and,judging from My Royal Fantasy Babe's hairstyle, probably taken in the late 1960s. They are in casual, expensive wear, perhaps on tour in a foreign clime though it's hard to tell from the buildings in the background which could be as easily in Europe as a more contemporary area of Bangkok. She's slim, sleek and cuddling a slinky black and white cat and smiling warmly in an unguarded moment at the camera as His Royal Majesty does his best James Dean.

The other is perhaps 25 years later. He's in formal, gold and yellow kingwear, steel spectacles, graying thinning hair and obviously addressing a large public gathering from a high balcony. When the shutter clicks, though, he's interrupted by the Queen to whom he is caught turning and smiling as she peeks laughing around the balcony wall with a small video camera taping the invisible crowd below. In this picture particularly they're less royals and more a couple sharing a private moment in a public arena.

But my favorite is one I have yet to see displayed here. Circulated on the Internet it's easily dubbed "The King Meets the King." Their Royal Thai majesties are on the set of Elvis Presley's 1960 GI Blues. Her Majesty is smartly coiffed in what appears to be white linen and a black blouse, sitting between Elvis in army khakis and her rather stiff-in-shades husband who is next to Elvis's fetchng spiffy costar, Juliette Prowse in a airy, spring/summer-like (Thai silk?) frock. It's obviously a PR set up. You can see the security and press corps in the shadows behind them, but it's a moment of royal chic. Or schtick.

God save their Majesties and my original pinup girl.

1 comment:

Spike said...

You know, even this tale could get you in trouble in Thailand, especially with the current "government."