Celebrating in Salmon: The Birthday of a Monarch
The first weekend of December was an exciting time in Thailand. Not only did it mark the return of Cengiz and I to the Thai entertainment circuit with our first pay check, but it was the 3 day climax of the King’s week-long Birthday Celebration. A monarch’s birthday is as important and grand a holiday as they come. Coming from the States, we assumed this was a throw away, 2nd class holiday, along the lines of the generic “President’s Day.” This is not the case. Not only does the King’s birthday constitute a week long celebration and holiday hangover Monday free of work, but it includes a day of dedicated alms giving that nullified Friday as a school day, a practice day on Thursday that canceled classes, and a national dress code- pink.
The week was everywhere. On the news, reports of an expected 4 million visitors and 150 million baht budget heralded to coming events. The stages and speakers being erected in every vacant lost announced that the party would be coming all the way out to Lamlukka. And, the bustling administrators at school told us that not even work could get in the way of the party.
Thursday afternoon, while standing behind a throng of students just sprung from class and looking (and feeling) utterly confused, Cengiz and I were informed that we would need to purchase some pink “King’s shirts” for Friday’s special ceremony. Fortunately, this didn’t take much. Wednesday is a dedicated market day here in Lamlukka, so a walk down the street with plenty of hasty ocular searching produced the shirts in no more than 25 minutes.
On Friday, we were standing, front and center in front of the student body, flanking the processional route to the King’s altar. What proceeded was an elaborate display of loyalty and praise: there was a procession of gifts, prayers, guest speakers (male, the Birthday loosely serves as a “father’s day” as well), a ceremony of fathers’ feet kissing, traditional songs, and several dances in ceremonial garb (two of which are conveniently available for viewing right below this post).
Saturday morning, we woke early and rushed down to Bangkok, not wanting to miss a second of the day’s events. Thailand never has a schedule published online for events and word of mouth often varies, so we were playing it safe and not leaving an option to miss anything. The morning was… event-less. It took us quite a long time getting into the city as we were determined to get all the way to our destination via public transportation. In the past, we would try recommended bus lines that let us off no where near our destination and were forced to take a cab for recovery purposes. This time, a bus, a train, and a ferry got us the 25 km we needed to go. Once we got there, there were no festivities. Now, that isn’t to say there wasn’t a throng of people gathering at the Grand Palace, but honestly it seemed more like a busy day of tourism. So, Cengiz and I toured the elaborate structures and site saw the shit out of it- squeezing through people, waiting for pictures, stepping over elderly Thais getting front row seats for… something. It was busy. This might sound terrible, but the Palace is so amazing, I hardly noticed. I was too busy trying to simultaneously see it with my own eyes yet not miss an inch with the Flip in my right hand.
The buildings are mosaic like Wat Arun across the river (https://ridingouttheeconomy.wordpress.com/2009/10/19/temple-of-the-dawn/) but are better preserved, bright, and shining in the sun. Every corner in the complex is potential blindness, as the sun shining off massive gold stupas was magnified to lethal intensity. The white marble bases double teamed your eyes with deflecting gamma rays from below. Inside the buildings, the walls are murals of Thai history, mostly battles, with armed elephants and deities painted in gold that when hit with sun, jump off the wall. Incense and candles were lit for the King’s health afoot a massive Buddha and guards roped off a special area for VIP visitors.
Outside the ceremonial center the palace is surrounded by beautiful grounds and more modern, functional buildings. We got to witness the changing of the guards and were very pleased. I have now seen a changing of the guards in Korea, Thailand, Greece, Italy, and England and I can confidently say that Thailand holds its own. The guards’ garb, straight from Buckingham palace is both aesthetically pleasing and functionally intimidating. Their march was in perfect unison and the stomp of their steel tipped dress shoes was a worthy herald of their approach. Watching visitors split in the road, as if genuinely terrified of the gun toting guards was a pleasure and the procession also served as a very practical means of traveling- akin to following in the wake of an emergency vehicle through rush hour traffic.
After the Palace, we went looking for events. Soon outside, we arrived at Silom Square, sight for the evening’s fireworks and carnival entertainments. At the moment, it was a pigeon infested dirt field under construction and healing from the late night events of Friday. We moseyed through it, watching things set up and browsing food, but left it behind for the parade route. Logically, the parade route ran right into the square at the Palace, unfortunately, at 3 o’clock, there was little to see. So after asking around in broken Thai and oddly accented English (yes, starting to speak English like a Thai…) and receiving some ridicule for being the babbling, Pinocchio nosed falang, we determined that the parade was at 6:00.
We immediately ducked down an alley heading toward the Koh San area, thinking we could have some drinks, food, and relaxation for a couple hours while we awaited the night. At the hookah bar I have become particularly fond of, we were able to indulge all of those needs and were afforded the extra bonus of a new friend. Naina, a Thai-Indian mutt was curious about the flavor we got and obviously wound up joining us as we shared a couple of hookahs for the next hour and a half. Naina was an interesting new character in our adventures: from Thailand, she was educated in an Indian boarding school until coming back for a college degree and was studying for a MA in ESL at the moment. So, she was interested in picking out minds for anecdotal advice about the classroom and we couldn’t help but ask her for some theoretical teaching on how to go about this new occupation. Things devolved into a description of her life- arranged marriages, college curfews, Indian and Thai cultural influences, etc. Though I’ve heard about cultural traditions (of the extremely conservative variety- like arranged marriage) before, it was fascinating to hear, for the first time, first hand, what her life was like.
At 5:30 we headed to the parade grounds, finally ready to see some celebrating! Standing in an obviously restricted zone, we idiot farangs were fortunate enough to get moved right up front, to Democracy Monument for a candle lighting ceremony for the King. The actual lighting didn’t last long and we didn’t understand much, but there was an unavoidable feeling of excitement just to be a part of the event. As if the crowd energy was not enough, the setting was intense. We watched the spires of Democracy Monument erupt like flames against the dimming sky. The golden spires gleamed fierce gold against a pitch black, glassy, night sky. The tranquil day of thanks gave way to a night of magic and excitement the streets erupting in activity.
The wave of people heading down the street was tight and unrelenting. Caught in the current, we drifted, slowly toward the palace once again and we were hit with sensory overload. From the trees lights poured like sparks from an arc welder. Above us were strings draped from the massive golden likenesses of his majesty that lined the avenue. Like Orwell turned upside down, we were watched by benevolent Big Brother as we wandered in wonder. Everything was gold against the sky, just like democracy monument, illuminating faces from the oddest angles. A random cabby, resting on his bike while exchanging joyous banter and drink with his friend, looked almost holy, his head surrounded with a glow from the light behind like a halo. From above, the laughter of children cascaded down from the shoulders of fathers. Applause and laughter could be heard from the clots of observers crowding round street performers lost in the ecstasy of their acts. Food vendors were assaulted and looted- fried banana, sausages, other skewers, fish balls, everywhere! Teens were crouched curbside playing with cell phones or verbally jostling with each other for the attention of the opposite sex. A rather relaxing day had guided us hear, to an affair with the same fervor as Mardi Gras or St. Patrick’s day. Even the sound of brass floated gently by from a band hundreds of meters ahead. Their notes, like their instruments, followed the theme of the night and roared gold.
We immediately ducked down an alley to catch a breadth and unleash a torrent of laughter. As we skipped from shadow to shadow we were suddenly lit up like commandos caught by a flair. Fireworks, undoubtedly the 4 ft. mortars we observed earlier, were exploding all around us. The star clusters, sudden bright lights at the end of a tunnel, were framed by the flanking buildings. The images were surreal, like a night of spectical in a Baz Luhrmann movie. Yet, no one but us seemed to notice. The shopkeepers and browsing locals went on with their daily lives. The view was perfect- this was what we came to the Orient for. The crooked street, sometimes concrete sometimes brick, flowed between the buildings, lapping imperfectly against tiny shops. Venders of traditional medicine- mushrooms, roots, animal limbs, and vials filled (perhaps) with the same mysterious Eastern magic that I assumed conjured the light show- were crammed in between more modern clothing shops. Aged men, with leather skin worn from work and stained with ancient Kehmer Sak Yant dragged loaded two wheelers and carts down the street and into vanishing alleys. One offered a humorous “welcome to Thailand” as I jumped to avoid the 1976 Zenith TV he pulled in his wake. This was not Thailand though, I felt like I was in the Siam of old. Dancers in traditional dress, straight out of the “King and I” would hurry past like hallucinations on their way to a stage. And next to aged watches were eroded amulets for sale as protection from droopy eyed men relaxing amid clouds of smoke. What a foreign place we had found ourselves in and so close to everything Western- Koh San road, the tourist geared shops around the palace, and the new light rail. It was as if we slipped through a hole in time or something. Meanwhile, Thailand continues to offer us firework shows and each is more spectacular and different than the last: we’ve watched rockets slung by locals off bridges, enjoyed the King’s Birthday show through an unbelievable lense, and have even seen munitions launched from ancient ruins and amid dueling battle elephants (more on that to come later).
Following the parade route to the festival, we found ourselves directly in front of a Muay Thai ring. Needless to say, this made us very happy. All night there would be Thai v. Falang fights. When you see a fight at the stadium, this is generally a stacked event. The falang is much better and beats the Thai. Not on the King’s Birthday. This was the real deal and these guys were not letting anyone win easy.
After watching WWF like intros for some female fighters, we slipped under the barricades and headed ringside. Though it wasn’t hard to tell we were out of place, the Flip and Cengiz’s Nikon made our claims as press somehow credible and we were allowed to stay. This of course meant I needed to do an impromptu video interview with some Austrian trainers- piece of cake. Two 250 lb. ubermensche looking meanies in black. Fortunately, these guys didn’t speak English all that well, so my utter lack of questions were lost in translation and the session ended jovially. Luckily, they were also blinded by the rare bit of stardom and press, as they did not (nor did I) notice that I was pointing the camera at our abdomen the whole time. The “press” access worked out great. Cengiz got up close and personal for picks, I got to tape the fight from right there, and even eaves drop on some mid round pep talks and wound addressing.
The female fighters, the first we have seen, were ferocious. Like lady ruggers on steroids with too much amphetamine and a child’s life at risk. Even behind the ropes, camera, Austrians, and Cengiz I was a little scared. The entrances remained quite the spectacle and the fights only got better, culminating in a guy snapping his fibula in half on a Thai femur of steel. It was like the Willis McGahee clip but in person and not a knee (thank God).
Exhausted from the experience of prime viewing, we headed to our hostel ready for R&R in preparation for the next day. Unfortunately, the hostel booked our reservations away and we sulked back home in a taxi, only to repeat the journey into BKK the next day.
Though Sunday was much less eventful, Cengiz and I still got to experience some firsts. We toured the city on the BTS Skytrain, easily the most enjoyable public transportation I have ever encountered, grabbed some movies and new video from red light district, Patpong, and enjoyed an impromptu pub crawl. After heading to Sukhumvit, the pricey, extremely Japanese, expat center of Bangkok, we arrived to find a glorious landscape of alternating Sushi Bars and Irish Pubs. As we weren’t that hungry and wanted to do the Sushi bars in jackets, when we could say we were entrepreneurs made rich via Seoul and looking for a South East Asian operating center, we headed for the first English pub we saw. After a fantastic round of Guinness, you can guess where we were drawn next. That’s right, the next pub, for another round. And after that one… oh, you get the idea. We sampled all 5 pubs in a thoroughly enjoyable, surprisingly responsible crawl and completely unexpected treat. An entire post will be dedicated and published soon enough for all of you pro Saxon beverage advocates, even when in Asia and broke, people who tune into this blog.
The weekend was pretty amazing. The three days were a really nice break after a grueling month of November and the celebrations were one of the most culturally shocking experiences so far. The elaborate pageantry arranged for the King and the genuine respect and admiration (not to mention worry, over his health) that citizens showed all week was sublime. The only image I have of kings are European monarchs- the stuff of legendary beheading, incest driven insanity, tyranny, and the like. To get an opportunity to not only live in a modern monarchy, but celebrate it, was something I never expected. The light show was great (and fireworks never get old), there was plenty of Muay Thai (also never gets old), hookah and Indian food (trend developing…), the candle lighting was something I will never experience again, and the Grand Palace is officially on the top 5 coolest places I have ever seen list (though Cengiz tells me I say this about everything we go to). Plus, we got to walk around in pink all weekend without looking like jerk offs! Oh yeah… and Guinness.