Thai people are well known for being economic with their words. Wherever they can omit a syllable and still retain the obvious meaning, they’ll lose no time in chopping it up to save lip work. And so I should have seen it coming . . . but I didn’t, and I couldn’t help sighing inside when I heard “Facebook” being called “Face.” At first, I wasn’t sure that I’d heard correctly: the conversation was in Thai. But then I heard it again – this time from my wife: “I play Face.” Ha! The cheesiness never ceases to amaze me! Face?! Honestly, how cheesy is that? But the best part of it is that Thai people use the verb “play” when referring to Facebook. Native English speakers would probably say: “Do you have Facebook?” or “Do you have a Facebook account?” But the fun-loving Thais say: “Do you play Facebook?” I think from now on I may be hearing the abbreviated version of this line: “Do you play Face?”
Other words that Thais abbreviate:
7-Eleven = Sewen
Computer = Com
Tesco Lotus = Lotat
The Miracle Grand Hotel = Milaceun
The year 1932 marked a turning point in the history of Thailand. Faced with a failing economy, a reduced military budget, and cuts to civil service payrolls, a group of foreign-educated civilians and military leaders secretly began plotting the overthrow of the ruling princes of the Supreme Council. These princes practiced nepotism and greedily hoarded their personal wealth. In an attempt to ease the economic tension, King Prajadhipok proposed the levying of income taxes and property taxes but the Supreme Council opposed these policies, fearing that their personal fortunes would suffer. They instead made cuts to civil service and military spending, causing the Minister of Defense Prince Boworadet to resign, and angering civilians. The king himself was of a passive nature and allowed the Supreme Council to overrule him. He admitted his lack of financial acumen and publicly apologized for his failings:
“I myself do not profess to know much about the matter… if I have made a mistake I really deserve to be excused by the officials and people of Siam.”
In April of that year, Bangkok celebrated its 150th anniversary. Rama I founded the capital in 1782, after the fall of Ayutthaya. Legend tells how Rama I prophesised that his dynasty would last but 150 years. To honour the founding of the Chakri dynasty, the king had commissioned the building of a bridge to span the Chao Phraya River and a large statue of Rama I, which was sculpted by the resident Italian artist, Corrado Feroci. King Prajadhipok had promised to reveal his planned constitution during these celebrations. When the sesquicentennial passed without mention of a constitution, the People’s Party began to foment revolution.
Four senior army officers joined the Promoters after sensing the growing vibe of discontent among many of Siam’s young officers and civil servants. Chief among them was Phraya Songsuradet, who became the main tactician in plotting the coup and advised the Promoters to be more secretive to avoid official detection. The coup organizers held clandestine meetings in dimly-lit boardrooms to plan the overthrow of the ruling elites. Despite their precautions, word of the coup eventually leaked to the police. On the evening of June 23, 1932, the Director General of the Police made a phone call to Prince Paribatra – who was acting Prince Regent while the king was away at his seaside resort in Hua Hin – asking him for authorization to arrest the coordinators of the coup. The prince, recognizing many of the names on the list of conspirators, decided to delay the order until the next morning, a delay that would cost him bitterly.
In the early hours of June 24, 1932, civilian and military members of the People’s Party began to gather on the pavilion of Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. A gunboat sailed up the Chao Phraya River and was positioned facing the residence of Prince Paribatra. Naval units arrived on the scene under false orders to suppress a Chinese uprising. Many of those gathered there on that fateful morning were unaware of the intentions of the People’s Party and there was a general air of confusion. Military units secured all strategic locations and the princes of the Supreme Council were arrested and imprisoned in the Throne Hall. Prince Paribatra was reputedly in his pyjamas when armed soldiers came to take him away; he was given no time to change his clothes. It was well known that Paribatra had strongly opposed the constitution and wished to put himself or his son on the throne in place of King Prajadhipok. Only one of the princes managed to avoid arrest. Prince Purachatra had been away at the Turkish baths in downtown Bangkok when a faithful servant came to warn him of the uprising. He escaped from Bangkok by train and disembarked in Hua Hin, where he informed King Prajadhipok of the state of affairs back in the capital.
When a large crowd had gathered on the pavilion of Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, a speech was given by Phraya Manopakon (Mano) which strongly criticised the king and the ruling elites. The speech was written by Pridi Phanomyong, a French-educated radical who played a key role in organizing the coup d’état. Mano, standing on a podium on the pavilion of the Throne hall, read out the Manifesto of the People’s Party. In it, the king was accused of embezzling funds, nepotism and governing without principle. In the speech, the People’s Party invited the king to retain his position, but under a constitution which would strip him of all his theoretical powers. The king was given an ultimatum: if he did not reply, it would be taken as treason and the country would adopt a republican form of government. All this was broadcast over radio and supporters of the movement blanketed the capital with flyers and pamphlets. Despite the rousing speech, many of the onlookers remained noncommittal and waited to see the reaction of the forces that were being ousted.
Meanwhile, King Prajadhipok was at his seaside palace, Klai Kangwon, teeing off a game of golf when Prince Purachatra came charging onto the scene talking of revolution in the capital. The king took the news with aplomb and asked his wife, Queen Rambai Barni, to finish the game of golf while he went indoors to discuss the matter with Purachatra. Also staying with the king was Prince Svasti, Queen Rambai Barni’s charismatic father, who was well known for his wit and charm. The group nervously listened to the strongly-worded radio broadcast of the People’s Party and considered what course of action to take. At first, the possibility of fleeing the country was broached but when the king turned to his wife for a final answer, she decided the most honourable thing to do would be to return and face the music. Later in the day, they received a telegram from the People’s Party which contradicted the terms set forth in their Manifesto. In the telegram, they assured King Prajadhipok that if he did not want to remain on the throne, they would be happy to replace him with another prince. Soon after, a gunboat was dispatched to Hua Hin and the commander of the vessel went ashore to ask the King to return with him to Bangkok. He refused to board the gunboat and went instead by royal train.
King Prajadhipok and his entourage arrived in Bangkok late the next night and were met by a police guard who served as escort to the group. No military display was permitted at the Bangkok station and the People’s Party kept a respectful distance. Early the next morning, the king expressed his wish to meet with the leaders of the coup. Four members of the People’s Party were escorted to a room in King Prajadhipok’s palace where he was sitting behind a broad desk. He smiled and rose to greet them. “I rise,” he said, “in honour of the People’s Party.” In a country where civilians had once been obliged to prostrate themselves in the presence of the king, this significant moment was seen as a clear sign of King Prajadhipok’s willingness to agree to the terms of the People’s Party Manifesto. On June 27, 1932, King Prajadhipok signed the draft constitution, which stripped him of all his ancient powers. All the princes held captive were then released, all except Prince Paribatra, who was exiled to Germany for fear that he might stage a counter coup.
By the end of November of that year, the new government had drafted up a Permanent Constitution and it was formally signed by King Prajadhipok on December 10, 1932, thus ending 150 years of absolute monarchy.
To see more pictures from the 1932 coup d’état, visit my image blog, Siamese Visions.
In Bangkok’s spiritual heart, next to the lifeline of the Chao Phraya River, is Wat Phra Kaew – known by foreigners as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Located in the northeast corner of the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew is one of Bangkok’s must-see temples and draws hundreds of visitors each day. The temple houses the Emerald Buddha statue, which was brought to Bangkok by Rama I when he was a general in the army of King Taksin. In 1785, when the Grand Palace was officially opened, Rama I enshrined the Emerald Buddha inside Wat Phra Kaew, where it has remained since.
To get to the temple, take the express boat to Tha Chang, then take a short walk along Thanon Na Phra Lan through the maze of street vendors and souvenir sellers until you come to the Gate of Glorious Victory. Once you step through the gates you will get a glimpse of the magnificent spires of the Phra Si Ratana Chedi and Phra Mondop, which are located on the upper terrace. This tantalizing view is just the tip of the iceberg, and more wonders wait to be revealed inside. The ticket office is at the end of the driveway on the left. As of the time of this blog post, tickets cost 400 baht for foreigners.
Inside the temple grounds, your eyes will be dazzled by the iridescent blues, reds, golds and silvers of the mirrors adorning the temple walls, which refract light in a thousand directions. Surrounding the whole compound are high arcaded walls, decorated with murals showing scenes from the Thai national epic, Ramakien. Fearsome statues, known as Yaksha, guard the Emerald Buddha and ward off evil spirits. The whole scene is like something from a gaudy fairytale, and the English novelist, W. Somerset Maugham wrote of it:
“It makes you laugh with delight to think that anything so fantastic could exist on this sombre earth.”
Since it was first built under Rama I, successive kings have added to and renovated Wat Phra Kaew. A wide range of architectural styles are present throughout the temple grounds including Thai, European and Chinese. This gives the temple its hodge-podge nature. During the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV), a scale model of Angkor Wat was introduced. At the time, Cambodia was a vassal state of Thailand and Rama IV reputedly wanted to move the entire Angkor Wat to Bangkok. However, he was dissuaded from this excessive undertaking and decided instead to commission a scale model. To the east of the upper terrace is Phrasat Phra Thep Bidon, known as the Royal Pantheon. This ornate building is designed in Khmer style and features life-size statues of all the previous kings. It is only open on ceremonial days such as Chakri Day (April 6), when the current Chakri dynasty is celebrated, and Coronation Day (May 5).
The Emerald Buddha is enshrined inside the bot, the largest building at Wat Phra Kaew and one of the few original structures remaining. The bot is garishly decorated in traditional Thai style, with gilt and coloured glass walls surrounded by 112 garudas (birdmen) holding nagas (serpents), telling the tale of Indra, the god who saved the world by defeating the serpent-cloud that had swallowed all the rain water. Inside the bot, the Emerald Buddha sits on a nine-metre-high pedestal. This legendary statue is revered as protector of the country and only the king is allowed to touch it. The king traditionally changes the Buddha’s costume three times in the year to correspond with the start of the hot season, rainy season and cool season. Despite being called the Emerald Buddha, the statue is carved from a piece of solid jade, in the meditating posture of the Lanna school of northern Thailand. The statue was first discovered in 1434 when “lightning” shattered a chedi in Chiang Rai. In the ensuing chaos, a stucco Buddha image fell and some of the stucco was chipped, revealing the Emerald Buddha beneath. The figure then moved to Lampang and Vientiane before finally being carried to Thonburi by Chao Phraya Chakri (Rama I) in 1779.
If you’re looking for the tranquillity and authenticity of a traditional Buddhist temple, you won’t find it at Wat Phra Kaew. The steady stream of tourists ensures that the place is constantly bustling with a multitude of languages and nationalities. This makes it hard to really appreciate the beauty of Wat Phra Kaew and you will spend most of your time trying to avoid getting in other people’s photographs, or getting them in yours. As you enter the central bot, you will most likely get pulled along by the strong current of people – all fighting for space to leave their shoes – and find that you don’t really get any time to observe the exotic images that surround the walls. Before you know what’s happened, you will be back outside wondering what all the hassle was about. Wat Phra Kaew is best visited in the morning while you still have plenty of energy, it could be a real drain in the late afternoon.
The temple is definitely worth a visit but for a quiet place to relax, you’d be better heading to temples such as Wat Sanghathan, which, although off the tourist radar, is a great place to take in the ambiance of temple life. Wat Phra Kaew, unfortunately, has become little more than a money making machine, where the original sanctity has been replaced by the creeping tentacles of capitalism and the rush towards “modernism.” The Thais are a Buddhist people, and Buddhists believe in the universal concept of cause and effect. One has to wonder what the effect of all those unaccountable masses will be. If the countless kisses of pilgrims can wear away the foot of the statue of St. Peter in the Basilica, what will the noisy calamity of tourists in Wat Phra Kaew bring about as they continue to flock in the selfish pursuit of been-there-and-done-that.
At the end of a turbulent decade, the ruling Thai government of the time decided to pay homage to the 1932 coup d’état – which brought about the end of absolute monarchy – by constructing a large symbolic monument on Ratchadamnoen Klang Road. The foundation stone of Democracy Monument was laid down in 1939, the same year that the country’s name was changed from Siam to Thailand. At the time, the country was under the rule of military dictator, Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram, whose fascist leanings were outlined when he signed a pact with the Japanese and declared war on the United States of America and Great Britain. Phibun, who was educated in France, compared Democracy Monument to the Arc de Triomphe, and said that it represented a new Westernized and cultured Bangkok. During a cabinet meeting of August 30, 1939, he said:
“We must be as cultured as other nations otherwise no country will come to contact us. Or if they come, they come as superiors. Thailand would be helpless and soon become colonized. But if we were highly cultured, we would be able to uphold our integrity, independence, and keep everything to ourselves.”
In order to make way for Democracy Monument, local residents were evicted from their homes and businesses at short notice. It should be no surprise, then, that the building of the monument was highly unpopular and not only did many people lose their homes and livelihoods, hundreds of shade trees were cut down to make space for a ceremonial boulevard. Considering Bangkok’s torrid heat, and lack of air-conditioning at the time, shade trees were an important part of everyday life.
Democracy Monument was designed by Mew Aphaiwong, an architect who had ties to Phibun. The Italian sculptor, Corrado Feroci, executed the relief sculptures around the base of the monument. The relief sculptures, however, are not an accurate representation of the events that occurred on June 24, 1932, and are rife with propaganda. The armed forces are depicted as saviours of the nation, bringing about democracy as a united force for the benefit of the people. Civilians appear only as grateful recipients of the fortitude of the armed forces, when in actual fact the coup was carried out by both civilians and the military. In the panel titled “Soldiers Fighting for Democracy”, the military are shown engaged in a battle for “democracy”, though the coup was bloodless and no fighting took place.
The monument itself is highly symbolic. Four large wing-like structures surround the central turret, upon which sits a carved representation of the constitution. These wings represent the four branches of the Thai armed forces which carried out the 1932 coup. Each one of these wings is 24 metres high, marking the fact that the coup took place on June 24. The central turret stands three metres high, representing the month of June, the third month of the traditional Thai calendar. The turret has six gates which represent the six policies of the Phibun regime: independence, internal peace, equality, freedom, economy and education.
Today, Democracy Monument stands isolated on a traffic island, almost impossible to reach due to the heavy Bangkok traffic. Thai people are starkly unaware of what really happened on that fateful day in 1932. As has often been the case in Thailand’s history, events pertaining to politics and the monarchy have been erased from memory or glorified. If you manage to dodge the relentless traffic, take some time to appreciate the relief sculptures and design of Democracy Monument, if for no other reason than to confirm the propagandistic nature of its design and reflect on the undemocratic way in which in which it was realised. If you can’t get that close, you could always take a seat opposite, like the woman in this picture. I wonder what she was thinking.
See more pictures of Democracy Monument on my image blog Siamese Visions.
If you’re thinking of buying a house in Bangkok, take a few minutes to read on and consider whether it’s a sensible investment.
Construction methods in Thailand’s capital leave a lot to be desired and first-time foreign witnesses of this antediluvian approach to building are often shocked at the conditions under which labourers carry-out their tasks. It is not uncommon to see entire families shacked up in make-shift homes on the side of the road while they complete a building project. Children run euphorically around the site while mum and dad toil under the burden of heavy loads, wearing open-toe shoes and wide-brimmed hats as their only safety gear. A project which would take a month to complete in the West, takes five months in Bangkok. Houses are erected on bamboo scaffolding, concrete mixed with water from polluted sources, and contractors cut corners on material costs then pocket the difference.
Needless to say then that many houses in Bangkok don’t last long and, like many things in Thailand, behind the pretty white-painted façade, are the deep cracks and structural weaknesses that will leave your investment practically worthless in around 10 years. For those who have visited or lived in Thailand, “ghost buildings” are a common sight. These empty shells stand disused and blackened from pollution, with remnants of the former occupants – posters on the walls, curtains fluttering in the wind – still left untouched, creating an eerie effect. Many of these ghost buildings are half-finished projects that were left undone after money dried up in the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Some of them are just abandoned apartment complexes that are no longer structurally safe.
And if that’s not enough to convince you that buying property in Thailand is an iffy business, get this: Bangkok is sinking. Yes, you heard it, our beloved city of angels is sinking, and experts predict that parts of the city may have to be abandoned as encroaching waves are aided by poor drainage systems, depressions in the earth’s crust – caused by water for industry being extracted from underground aquifers – and poor flood defences. Once dubbed the “Venice of the East,” Bangkok started out as a trading post on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, where natural and man-made canals provided transport and drainage. During the post-World War II race to modernize, many of the canals were filled in as the automobile-hungry population demanded road space.
Because Bangkok is built on sediment, rather than bedrock, the city is slowly sinking. Estimates vary from 2 to 4 inches per year but that it is sinking cannot be disputed. Parts of the capital are already below sea level and the coastline rises just 3 to 5 feet above the Gulf of Thailand. Smith Dharmasaroja, chair of the government’s Committee of National Disaster Warning Administration, says that Bangkok will be under sea permanently in the next 15 to 20 years. Bangkok is the heart of Thailand and if it goes under water, “everything would stop,” says Dharmasaroja. Experts all agree that Bangkok is headed for trouble, though no-one agrees on when. However, one thing to consider is that Bangkok has been under the sea before, as recently as 5,000 years ago; perhaps this swampy city is headed there again!
We’ve all heard the horror stories of how Thailand has a double-pricing system for foreigners. But have you actually experienced it, and what was your reaction?
Before I came to Thailand, I read about the double-pricing system for foreigners. When I first came here, I was paranoid that I was paying double because of my “round eyes and big nose.” Over time I came to know how much things cost and found that if I spoke Thai and acted like I knew the score, I usually didn’t have any problems. Double-pricing can strike anywhere, at any time, but the uninitiated are more likely to fall victim to this unofficial tax.
Take, for example, the tuks tuks in tourist central: the drivers want 150 baht for a journey that would cost 50 in a taxi. One-time visitors don’t know any different and often pay for the novelty of riding in these freaks of automobilia. But when you’ve lived in Bangkok for a while, and you know that they should be charging you about 40 baht, it gets kind of annoying. The problem is, no matter how long you stay here, you will always have “round eyes and a big nose” and unless we wear a t-shirt that proclaims: “I’ve lived here for over two years” – we remain tourists in their eyes.
This double-pricing system shows the amazing short-sightedness of Thai people: charge me double and I’ll never do business with you again; treat me with respect and I’ll become a regular, devoted customer. The other day, I went to a new street vendor to buy food because my usual place was closed. I ordered two dishes that I know cost 30 baht from anywhere else and the woman charged me ninety. No big deal. I paid. Didn’t complain . . . and I’ll never go there again. It wasn’t so much the price, it was the principal.
Okay, but it’s easy to see everything from the farang’s point of view and forget that the humble street vendor/tuk tuk driver – who has perhaps suffered years of hardship, living life on the edge, worrying how to provide a staple meal for his/her children – may in fact be the one getting ripped-off. Thailand is their home, they’ve grown up here, paid tax since the moment they were born and given their heart and soul to the nation. Farangs turn up midway through their lives and demand equal treatment. They say the universe has a way of righting itself and perhaps the double-pricing system is Thailand’s way of making foreigners pay their way.
Ever heard embarrassing stories of farangs blowing their lid and losing all self-control in public, smashing up restaurants over 20 baht or slapping the waitress who charged for ice? Come on “hot heads.” Chill out! We have to remember that we are guests in a country that was here long before us, and will be here long after us. The customs and traditions of Thailand are deeply rooted in a long and complex history dominated by social status, age and gender. The farang, typically arrogant, turns up and tries to change all that during a month-long vacation.
And then there’s the smartass farangs, who’ve read all about bartering and have vowed to make it their duty to ask for a discount on everything. I know one farang who – in my mind – is synonymous with the phrase: “lod dai tow rai?” (How much discount can you give?). From the first moment I met this guy he was bragging about his bartering exploits. He once proudly told me how he’d bartered the motorcycle taxi down from ten, to seven baht. I mean, come on, you have to draw the line somewhere. No need to add insult to injury.
So there you have it. Love it or hate it, the double-pricing system in Thailand is going as strong as ever. It would be interesting to hear from the readers and discover what your experience of double-pricing is? Ever been charged an outrageous sum of money for some insignificant item? Ever blow your top and demand the right price? Whatever your story, it would be good to hear your thoughts on double-pricing. If you’re too busy to write a comment, why not vote in the user’s poll below? Are you for or against the double-pricing system? Let the voting begin!
For the foreign residents of Bangkok, sightseeing around Rattanakosin Island doesn’t seem like so much fun once you’ve been here for a few years. The place is jam packed with tourists, cheap souvenirs (that Thai people never buy), and insane tuk tuk drivers who charge us triple rate, just because we’ve got round eyes and a big nose. It seems that there is nowhere where you can escape the clamour of tourist mania. However, there are a few places that offer a quiet retreat from the noise and heat of Bangkok’s “spiritual heart” and one of my favourite is the King Prajadhipok Museum.
Located at the Phanfa Bridge intersection, the museum is housed in a three-storey registered heritage building, not far from Democracy Monument. It was built in the early 20th century by a French-Swiss architect, Charles Beguelin, and has served numerous purposes over the years. It became the Prajadhipok Museum in 2001. The museum was formerly housed in the basement of the Secretariat Building but moved to the Public Works Department after the King Prajadhipok’s Institute took over the role of management. In 1980, the king’s wife – Queen Rhambai Barni – donated a large number of authentic personal items such as reading glasses, photographs and memoirs.
The various exhibitions inside the museum guide you through the life and reign of King Prajadhipok, from his coronation in 1926, through to his eventual abdication in England, where he lived until his death in 1941. His reign marked a turning point in Siamese history and he became the last absolute monarch and first constitutional monarch of the Chakri dynasty, when the Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party) staged a coup d’état in 1932, demanding a “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” The coup was bloodless and the king willingly signed the draft constitution on June 27, 1932, essentially giving away all his powers. But later, in 1933, he expressed his discontent with the way the new government was running the country. In 1934, he left the country on the premise of an eye operation, never to return. He formally abdicated on March 2, 1935.
The first floor of the museum is where the temporary exhibition hall is found and contains articles related to the life of King Prajadhipok and Queen Rambhai Barni. On the second floor you will find exhibits such as the desk that King Prajadhipok used to sit at, a book cabinet – containing the books he read (I saw H.G Wells’ War of the Worlds) – and a collection of cigarette lighters. There is also a mini theatre which shows films about the king and films that he made such as “Magic Ring” which was shot on Pha-Ngan Island in 1929; ask museum staff for showing times. The third floor goes into detail about the signing of the Constitution, the 150th anniversary celebrations of Bangkok, which were organized by King Prajadhipok, and the story behind the coup.
It costs 40 baht to enter the museum, though I’ve been there three times and no one has ever asked me for my money. Bags must be left in the lockers in the entrance; keys are provided and a security guard sits by the door. The museum is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday and there are guided tours every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.
This little-known museum is a great alternative to the many crowded temples and palaces, and offers an interesting insight into the history of Thailand. Indeed, not far from the museum is Democracy Monument, which was constructed in 1939 to celebrate the coup d’état of June 24, 1932. After visiting this museum, you will have a clearer understanding of the significance of Democracy Monument, and how a country that had once bowed to the absolute power of monarchy, made its first tentative steps towards a constitution. Worth a visit and worth the 40 baht entrance fee; if they ask you for it.