Thailand has changed and it would be remiss of me to allow you to think that I have come to this land to live in a mud hut and minister to an isolated and uneducated people. The reality is that Thailand is a modern and robust kingdom with a long and complex history in Southeast Asia – a history too long to post here, but easily found on the Internet. Mom and I are currently staying at the Bangkok Christian Guest House, pictured here, whose history dates back to 1926 and early missionaries to Thailand. That history may be found on the Guest House website at www.bcgh.org.
One fact that gives the Thai people a great deal of satisfaction is that, unlike most of its neighbors, this kingdom has never felt the oppressive presence of European colonialism. Masterful diplomacy, as early as the 17th century, allowed the kings of Siam to maintain the independence of this tiny kingdom while the Portuguese, French, British, Dutch and others carved up the entire region. The kings wisely played competing Europeans against each other, ensuring that no one power would gain a dominant presence. The most famous king of this time was King Mongkut (Rama IV), who ruled from 1851-1868. He is the monarch who is portrayed, very inaccurately, in the Hollywood movie “The King and I.” He is one of the most revered monarchs of the country. During his reign, the pressure of Western expansionism was felt for the first time in Siam. King Mongkut embraced Western innovations and initiated the modernization of Siam, both in technology and culture, earning him the nickname “The Father of Science and Technology” in Siam.
After a bloodless coup in 1932, Siam’s mighty absolute monarchy became a constitutional monarchy and, in 1939, the kingdom officially adopted the name Thailand, which stands for ‘The Land of The Free’. The young King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII), who was installed after the coup, died in 1946 under somewhat mysterious circumstances and he was succeeded by his brother, King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), the longest reigning king of Thailand and currently the longest reigning monarch in the world. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1927 and educated in Switzerland and France, he is very popular with the Thai people. Known as “The People’s King,” he is the first Thai king to have visited every part of his kingdom. A talented jazz musician, he is an accomplished saxophone player. Although nominally a constitutional monarchy, Thailand has been ruled by a series of military governments, interspersed with brief periods of democracy.
A series of profitable alliances, particularly with the United States of America, has allowed Thailand to build a strong infrastructure and a bustling economy that weathered the recent economic crisis quite well. A strong public education system has created an educated and literate populace and a growing middle class. Bangkok has a strong public transit system, which includes buses and an elevated rail system that carries thousands of Thai to work each day. While I spoke of street vendors in an earlier post, the reality is that visitors to Thailand can find virtually any kind of cuisine they seek. And that includes, of course, Starbucks and McDonald’s. There is a Starbucks just half a block away from the Guest House. For McDonald’s, I might have to walk two blocks. Of course, I will pay more than 2 Thai baht for anything in those establishments, so I think I will stick with my tea and my “Dutchman’s Breeches.”