Come with me, an American, as I pay my respects to the departed Thai monarch King Rama IX. Can my Western knees handle the kneeling and bowing? Why would an American choose to prostrate before a king?
Visiting King Rama IX-2017
On October 13, 2016 King Rama IX of Thailand passed away. On June 12, 2017, we paid our respects to him. His body rested in state inside the Grand Royal Palace encapsulated in a golden Pra-jao yoo hua bor-rom goth, which translates to “royal casket.” However, in Thai, elements involving the royal family use words that are solely to reference them, and therefore, often the translations of these words do not have an exact match in English. Pra-jao yoo hua bor-rom goth, for example, was not a casket in the sense that most farang—Westerners—think about it. A casket is usually the size of deceased's body, but in this case, the casket was a little smaller than a compact car, and it resembled a golden, tiered pyramid.
It was our third day in Thailand and the jet-lag had not fully set in. Atthikhun, my wife’s cousin who is like a brother to us, picked us up. Parking is difficult close to the Grand Royal Palace, so we parked about a mile away. The sun warmed my head; plus, I wore all black: trousers, long sleeve dress shirt, and leather shoes that were not broken in. Thankfully, water stations were located along the way, and once we were on the Grand Royal Palace grounds, tents covered the walkways, blocking the oppressive sun. Four rows of plastic chairs—hundreds of chairs—lined a walkway surrounded by military men and women in white dress uniforms. We sat one behind the other in the third row from the left. Oscillating fans were mounted on the two tent poles in front of us, and they somewhat mitigated the mid-morning tropical heat. A cooling gust of air would hit me and cause a momentary cooling sensation, and that coupled with regular wipes on my forehead with my handkerchief cooled me enough to doze off.
As I drifted into sleep, the older people around me chatted and the man behind me: his cell phone blew up. When it came time to head into the palace, a military man addressed us in brusque and terse commands. I didn’t understand the commands, but I followed what the Thais did. A large, wooden red gate was pushed open to a street and two rows of men walked ahead of us with ropes stretched between them, blocking traffic for us to cross the street.
I was the only farang present. Building up to our trip, Natthinee asked me daily: “Are you sure you can kneel for that long? Don’t forget that your hands cannot separate. You must bow all the way to the floor. Your head must touch the floor. If you don’t do it correctly, everyone there will be angry with you. You will have disrespected the King.”
I knew how important this was to Natthinee. I assured her I could do it.
Many may wonder, why I, an American, we who revolted against a monarch, would pay my respects, enduring extreme heat and a three hour wait, to King Rama IX? For my wife. I try to share as much of her culture as I can. I never understood farang men who married women from other cultures and refused to have any interaction with that culture.
I have attended prayer services and funerals at temples around Thailand, and generally these ceremonies take hours. Sitting on a wooden or marble floor for that long is murder on my legs—when I do finally get up, I walk hunched over and with a limp. Hence, Natthinee feared I would embarrass her.
Fortunately for my legs, the ceremony was fleeting. After hours in the heat, we climbed a staircase and entered a glacial room—the a/c hummed—with plush carpet and rows of ornate chairs. Before stepping into the room, I removed my shoes. The focal point of the room was a golden pra-jao yoo hua bor-rom goth that resembled a tiered pyramid. Inside, rested the remains of King Rama IX.
Everyone kneeled, bowed, and rose.
We were ushered out a side door that allowed all of us to pass the golden pra-jao yoo hua bor-rom goth. Once outside I slipped on my shoes, and we followed the military people who led us under some more tents where we handed iced hibiscus juice and small Tupperware lunchboxes containing a scoop of rice, an omelet slice, and namprik (spicy chili paste that adds flavor and heat).
Unknowingly, I dropped my handkerchief outside the palace grounds. A gentle tap on my shoulder; I feared a street vendor or worst a hustler; instead a Thai grandmother’s face, happy and vibrant, greeted me. She placed the handkerchief in my hand, smiled. I thanked her, and hearing my Thai, her smile broadened.
I am glad I got to experience an event that may seem antiquated to Americans. But when we look at a political map, monarchies are not relegated to history books. The most important reason, however, is that Natthinee and I could share this experience.
Essays and Photos by Natthinee and Hardy Jones