last of the world’s kings

POSTCARD#287: Chiang Mai: Thailand is in mourning today, the funeral ceremony for King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Everywhere in the land, Buddhist ceremonies combined with Hindu and Animist beliefs are taking place, and TV coverage in all channels of the ceremony as it’s taking place in Bangkok.

A quote from Sir John Gielgud, narrator of the 1979 BBC documentary, ‘The Royal Family of Thailand’, describes the Thai king as, “the last of the kings of South East Asia” and, “one of the last of the world’s kings” – unknowingly descriptive of our time, 48 years further on, and the mourning day for the late king. There’s a new king of course, King Vajiralongkorn, the only son, but naturally there’s a feeling right now that with the old king, the lineage of historical kings has come to an end.

It’s this sense of ‘the end’, for me, a Western resident in Thailand since 1984; ‘the end’ is present in all our thoughts, bringing everything to a close. A sense of release and the sudden discovery that the death of the king is another teaching for the people who have followed him all their lives; a bridge from life to death for all of us and we knew it already, everyone and everything comes to an end; there is death and the passing on.

Another quote from Sir John Gielgud: “Thailand, one of the last countries in the world, still in touch with its past. Where ancient traditions can be adapted to suit the pressing needs of today’s world. A well-loved king, distinguished successor to ancient ancestors, who made use of his ritual sanctity, and his personal popularity to get things done to improve the people’s welfare.”

There’s no doubt in the minds of the population; the king lives on in the form of all of the projects he initiated. HM began the royal-initiated projects in 1950, and now there are thousands, all over the country, agriculture, water management, training, education. One of these is the artificial rain-making project for farming communities dependent on seasonal rain to grow crops, having to face severe drought conditions in the dry season. HM read research work on meteorology and weather modification and in 1955, HM used his own funds to launch the Royal Rainmaking Project.

Kukrit Pramoj “The monarchy is the soul of the Thai people. The king is more than a ceremonial head, he is the head of the clan; the father of a very big family of Thais. He is the source of Thai culture, everything emanates from him; behaviour, his way of life; the Buddhist religion seems to us, to emanate from the king and the monarchy.”

Ninety-five percent of Thais are practising Buddhists. “Thailand’s devout Buddhism is both a strength and a weakness. The weakness is that Buddhism encourages an acceptance of the status quo, for each person has many lives and the next one may be pleasanter. The strength is that there’s a moral and philosophical unity here that very few countries in the world now possess.” [Sir John Gielgud]


The night before, sleeping in the rain.
Cremation of the king