THAILAND

 


BANGKOK I went to visit Anna and the King of Siam's palace. Well, since Joe Rouse had found me good cheap tickets on Korean International Airlines, which stopped at Bangkok and Seoul enroute to Japan, that is, I decided to spend a day seeing Bangkok since it only cost me the $30 a night for my hotel, the Jade Pavilion Best Western. But, once in the air, when I opened a copy of the Seoul newspaper, I wondered if the KIA tickets were cheap because of the troubles in the headlines: "President Kim Asks Officers of KIA to Step Down," because of a rash of accidents and crashes the airline had been experiencing the last few weeks. Well, gulp. The cabin attendants couldn’t have been more solicitous and the flight was a delight.

On arrival at Bangkok’s airport, I bought a taxi ride to my hotel and with it a packaged tour sponsored by the government, or rather the kingdom, of Thailand, which was once called Siam. The tour would take me to two temples, and a factory the next day. I was the only customer, so got a van with a guide and driver all to myself. When it arrived in the morning, having read my brochures, right away I told my kingdom guide that I wanted to go see the Vimanmek Royal Mansion, the palace of King Chulalonghorn, rather than the temples with the big Buddhas which every tourist just has to see in Thailand. He could scarcely believe me, but after conferring with the driver, accompanied by much giggling, they agreed we could do it as long as I paid my own way in, about seventy baht (thirty-five cents), since it was not on my paid-for schedule. The giggling was infectious. I thought some Indian men in a holiday mood on my plane had been the champion gigglers (at the expense of an obstreperous fellow-flyer who was trying to demand more liquor than he could hold), but these two guys outdid even them. Maybe they were a bit nervous about breaking the rules.

Vimanmek, the King of Siam’s sumptuous palace, billed as the "World’s Largest Golden Teakwood Mansion," was built at the turn of the century. It was a series of rooms after rooms, suites of areas for the families of the King's many consorts. We all padded dutifully around barefoot following our guides, scarcely understanding a word they said in very thick, very enthusiastic broken English, but, my, it was a treat even so! I recognized so much, more from having read the book than from watching the play in New York or the movie. The Western-educated king was much taken with modern gadgets; had more than a dozen typewriters, for example, in one room. But the guides kept saying nothing about Anna Leonowens, the English tutor of King Mongkut’s son Chulalonghorn. So, in a room with many family photos on the walls (he had an early Kodak!), I asked about Anna, and received a very vague, evasive answer. It appears that the Kingdom of Thailand won't have anything to do with that story because they feel we seriously insulted their king with our play and movie version, making fun of his accent, the way he comported himself, etc. Thais revere him, and also revere the present King Bhumibol, his grandson. When I was leaving Bangkok, the desk clerk at my hotel, the Jade Pavilion Best Western, gently explained this to me. "It would be like if we made a musical comedy about your God," he smiled. Another example of Westerners’ condescending and superficial understanding of reality, I realized.

Since then I’ve discovered a quite a lot more on the net, including a November 1998 news item saying 20th Century Fox announced that its new film version of Margaret Landon’s novel, Anna and the King of Siam, will be filmed in Malaysia. It can’t be filmed in Thailand because that country’s film board rejected the script, calling it insulting to the monarchy, which is against the law. This sovereign, King Mongkut, repelled the aggressive march of colonialism in other countries of Southeast Asia by firmly establishing his own country as a sovereign state, through skillful diplomacy. At the same time he opened up the country to modernization. Indeed, it’s acknowledged by all that Anna Leonowens’ original books about her experiences, on which Landon’s novel was built, were written with more flair than skill, and historical inaccuracies were included. Jodie Foster is to direct the new movie and play the part of Anna, with Chow Yun Fat, known as charismatic, "cool," and an icon of Asian cinema most famous for "heroic bloodshed" films, as King Mongkut.

After the palace, my Kingdom guide took me to what I misunderstood as being a crafts emporium, and turned me over to a very friendly lady guide, who showed me through a gem polishing plant. Turns out it was "the largest gem store in the world," and they hoped I would buy a few emerald necklaces, or even more. I got away with only buying three tiny jade elephants for my three girls, and felt lucky I wasn't held for ransom at that.

That evening was the most fun, also part of the Kingdom-sponsored package. "My" van picked me up at the hotel and took me to a dinner theater. First we ate Thai food, "we" being a fifty-fifty mix of tourists and Thais, all seated at many very low, long tables with wells under them for our legs to hang down into, while we watched what was billed as a "VDO" about classical Thai dancing. Then when the dishes were being cleared away, a live music group appeared to play drums and marimba-like instruments and a couple of other unrecognizable objects for a while. After too much while, finally the curtain rose and we were treated to elegant live Thai dancing, done in sumptuous costumes. Once or twice actors danced right down into the audience so we could take closeup shots. Then during a final six-person dance, they all came down and picked five other people and me to go up on the stage and finish the dance with them! We gamely tried to place our feet and contort our hands just right copying them, to much applause and encouraging laughter.