Two weekends ago Thailand paid its last respects to Princess Galyani Vadhana, sister of Thailand’s king, the cremation ceremony and procession coming 300 days after her death, as is the custom in the kingdom when a member of the royal family dies. Although I did not witness the procession in person, the images I saw on TV were like nothing I had ever seen or could have possibly imagined. After months of preparation and practice, the cortege carrying the ashes of the princess made its way through the city, accompanied by 2,000 royal guards and soldiers, all in regalia and in perfect somber cadence. I was mesmerized by the sight of gilded carriages high above the heads of spectators, reminiscent of the royal barges that once passed through the city’s rivers and canals with the level of royal family members never once falling below the height of the tallest citizen. No longer required to avert eyes and touch foreheads to the ground as the king passes, Thais nonetheless bow deeply in the presence of royals, and did so as the ashes of the princess passed the onlookers.
There are very few places in the world where a monarch or immediate family members are treated with such reverence and respect. From an American’s perspective, it is a bit of a surprise to see this atmosphere, one that many consider an anachronism in this century. Unless one spends time in Thailand, it is difficult to appreciate just how important the king--and by extension his family—is to Thais.
The funeral is reported to have cost the equivalent of 9 million US dollars, an unimaginable sum to nearly everyone in the world, but in particular to those in a country where the basic wage is about $5 a day. And yet I did not hear one negative remark from Thais about such extravagance. Of course, not only is it considered rude to demean the royal family, highly insulting remarks may land the offender in jail. I have come to think that Thais may not think about it at all. From Buddhist philosophy, one accepts his lot in life, and begrudges no one theirs; they simply strive to live a good life, making merit whenever possible in order to have a better life next time around.