Long Live the King: Learning to Love Thailand’s Monarch


“I’m not standing for the King,” the German man behind me snapped.  “I’m standing because I want to.”

A few hundred passengers, awaiting trains in Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station, had risen with the opening chords of the national anthem.  Expats, locals and tourists faced a giant portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

It was my first day in the country, so I did not have the European gentleman’s conviction – I only straightened my legs because everyone else did.  Should I place a palm over my heart, or knock fingers against my forehead in salute?  Was the King alive, dead or simply resting after a kidney-stone removal?

Thai King clock

Photos of this 85-year-old monarch adorn daily objects, from clocks to pencil holders.

But after living in Thailand for several months, I’ve come to recognize his (does the King deserve a capital H?) image and influence over the country.  Known as a reformer who loves his people, they’ve responded by adding “The Great” to his name.

And while many visitors arrive in Bangkok with little more than a faint idea of Full Moon parties and southern islands, Thai respect for their King is a huge part of the cultural experience.

Here are a few important ways to show this respect:

  • Don’t say anything that may be mildly misconstrued as condemning.  The recent death of a Thai prisoner, serving a 20-year sentence for defamatory text messages, has thrown this Free Speech issue into the public press.
  • Don’t deface anything that has the King’s head; this includes standing on a coin with your dirty foot, or folding the baht bills to make the King’s mouth smile or frown.
  • Don’t lick stamps that feature the King’s bespectacled stare.
  • D0 wear yellow on Mondays, to celebrate the King’s physical passage into sovereignty.
  • Do stand up when the national anthem is played in public buildings (transportation stations, movie theaters) or over public communication systems (radio, tv, Buddhist temples).
  • Don’t hang anything on your wall higher than the one  (or 10)  calendar(s) of the King, which over-inundate every loyal Thai household.
  • Do celebrate all royal birthdays (the King has a family, after all) as public holidays.
  • Don’t illegally burn or buy an illegal copy of any patriotic DVDs, especially those portraying the royal family.
  • Don’t purchase or sell copies of The King Never Smiles, an unauthorized autobiography of his 66-plus year reign.  One US citizen, caught translating online portions of the text into Thai, was arrested – 5 years after posting them on his blog.
  • Don’t report me for that lowercase ‘h’; even badly-placed Facebook “likes” that appear degrading can be cause for jailing.
Statue of Thai King, Mae Hong Son province

Surely letting the King sit outside, with a broken leg, is highly offensive?… Mae Hong Son province, Thailand.

3 responses to “Long Live the King: Learning to Love Thailand’s Monarch

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