Bangkok bicentennial: pageantry, processions

Yes, for 200 years we have all been out of date by calling Thailand's great city Bangkok.

It was in 1782 that King Rama I renamed it Krung Rattanakosin when he decided that the small riverside market town would become his new capital. This official name roughly translates as ''City where the Emerald Buddha resides . . . (and) royal residence of Chakri monarchs.'' So to the Thai people, 1982 is not simply ''Bangkok 200'' (young, as cities go) but rather the ''Rattanakosin Bicentennial'' which adds to this, celebrating two centuries of uninterrupted progress as an independent nation under the benevolent kings of the Chakri dynasty. The present monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, like all his predecessors , bears the title Rama. He is Rama IX of the royal house of Chakri.

Though festivities will continue in all 71 provinces throughout the year, their focal point will be Bangkok in April. From April 4 through 21 the city will be the locale for pageantry, processions, festivals, exhibitions, and an international trade fair. These jubilations will include such rare occasions as a royal land procession paying homage to the Triple Gem (the Buddha, his Teaching, and his Disciples) and the royal ancestors on April 5. That same evening there will be three major royal ceremonies at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaeo), which is being given an elaborate upgrading for the bicentennial celebration.

Standing in the grounds of the Grand Palace, this beautiful temple was built in 1782 by Rama I to enshrine the Emerald Buddha, which he had brought to Siam (now Thailand) from Laos as a conquering general. The icon has had a colorful history and now is regarded as the nation's Palladium. Wat Phra Kaeo serves as a royal chapel and, among other duties, the King changes the Buddha's costume three times a year as the season dictates. It also houses a model of the fabled 12th-century Angkor Wat, built at the height of Khmer civilization. Murals represent Buddhist scenes and cosmology as well as depicting the Ramakien (Ramayana).

In the temple precinct stands the Royal Pantheon, and on April 6 only this will be open to the public to view statues of former sovereigns -- one of whom, Rama IV -- is better known to Westerners for his ''part'' in the musical ''The King and I.'' April 6 is a national holiday to proclaim Rama I of the Chakri house ''the Great.'' The present King will officiate at this ceremony in the evening at the foot of the Memorial Bridge, before a candlelight procession and fireworks display.

On April 7 special arrangements are being made so that tourists may be able to see the royal homage-paying ceremony to the guardian angel of the nation and celebrations of the royal paraphernalia, conducted among the fairy-tale spires and gold turrets of the Grand Palace. Stunning in its recently restored magnificence, the palace stands a full square mile in dimensions, awesome testimony to the grandeur and power of past monarchs. The present King has earned a place in the regard of his countrymen, and much of his time is spent in the regions, talking to people and sharing their problems.

His Bangkok residence, Chitrlada Palace, bears witness to a very practical ruler, for the compound houses experimental fishponds and paddies, a dairy farm, milk processing and packaging plant, experimental grain storage facilities, and a rice mill. King Bhumibol was born in the United States and continued the tradition of a part-Western education (in Switzerland) of his recent predecessors.

Most buildings of note are being specially lighted for the celebrations and information centers will provide details of events planned throughout the city.

The magic continues each evening during this period whether it be special performances of the ''Khon,'' or masked play from the Ramakien, traditional music, classical dances, or puppet shows and shadow plays. There is also a rare chance to see the royal barge procession. These resplendent gold longships with gleaming dragon prows have not been seen for 14 years but are being renovated for the occasion.

Commemorative stamps, exhibitions ranging from books on the Chakri dynasty of kings and Thai history through arts and crafts to coins offer the visitor never a better time to recapture the exotic splendor of the ancient Kingdom of Siam. Even the bus terminals will have exhibits on the 200-year growth of Bangkok.

The Thais are a joyous people, much given to celebrating, and for good measure the old Thai new year festival of Songkran occurs between April 13 and 15. This entails domestic rituals, like spring cleaning and sprinkling Buddha images with scented water, but is most known for the free-for-all water battles -- hence it is better known as the Water Festival. As this is the hot season (33 degrees C., 106 degrees F.) the dousing is not unwelcome! Songkran begins with a floral float procession and may include traditional sports like Saba (a form of skittles), festive boat races, and folk dancing and music.

There are also gentler pastimes: seeing the many lovely Buddhist temples or watching the monks at dawn go round with their bowls to collect food for the day from the devout. It soon becomes apparent why the Thais also call their capital Krungthep -- ''the divine city, city of angels.'' Two angels are prominent in the bicentennial logo, which will be displayed everywhere. The skyline is a mass of bell-shaped ''stupas'' and pagodas, towers and fanciful roofs whose ''fingernails'' echo those of the classical dancers, pointing upward.

Dominating the city is the Golden Mount of Wat Saket, whose man-made hill is composed of rubble from the excavations of Bangkok's canals in the late 1700s. Rama I built Wat Mahatat, began Wat Suthat (famous for its giant swing), and renamed and extensively rebuilt the lovely reliquary pagodas of Wat Phra Chetupon -- Wat Po for short -- the largest of the temples. Its fame is overshadowed by Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn, across the river at Thonburi. It glistens with the broken porcelain set as flowers into the steep cones of its spires. The distinctive beauty of each temple merits a separate visit: Wat Benchama Bopitr (the Marble Temple) Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and Wat Traimit (Temple of the Gold Buddha) are among the best known.

The floating market on the klongs (canals) at Wat Sai in Thonburi is best seen in the cool and quiet of the early morning, bringing back the more peaceful past of Bangkok's original name: ''village of the wild plum.'' For centuries small farmers and local traders have bartered in this way, displaying their wares in large baskets on sampans (boats) along the klongs and the Chao Phraya River.

The city's left bank is an intricate web of waterways, originally built as a military defense against the Burmese. Many of these canals however have been filled in over the past 20 years to make roads for Bangkok's rapid expansion, thus doing away with what had been a natural flood-control system, particularly necessary in the monsoon season.

Even in 1782 Bangkok was known to be flood-prone but was chosen in preference to the higher site of Thonburi, which was deemed more vulnerable to attack. The Chinese community was then living on the site of the present Grand Palace, but successful negotiations persuaded them to move to Sampheng, which remains colorful Chinatown to this day.

A scaled-down ''ancient city'' of pagodas, shrines, and Thai houses has been built in 200 acres of landscaped gardens near the crocodile farm by the estuary of the Chao Phraya River. Also of interest is the Pasteur Institute's snake farm , where venom is extracted. Jim Thomson's canalside house is justly famous for its collection of Asian antiques, while on the opposite bank you can visit a Thai silk factory.

In case you wish to slink away from history for a while, golf courses abound (one of the most scenic is at Bang Phra, another at the Rose Garden, which also stages a daily cultural show). All leading hotels have swimming pools. Trekking is fast becoming popular whether round tropical foothills or jungles or by the River Kwai.

For many, though, Bangkok is a shopper's paradise whether it be for orchids or for bargaining at open-air bazaars, or choosing at leisure in air-conditioned comfort. The selection of merchandise is dazzling, rich in craftsmanship and variety: silks, cottons, caftans, readymades in 24 hours, jewels or uncut gems, silver and bronze ware, ivory and woodcarving, porcelain, antiques, handmade silk flowers, teakware, and much else.

Night life from noisy discos to elegant floor shows of classical Thai entertainments like sword-play, Thai boxing, or dancing. Most of the major hotels have their own programs and several restaurants. Thai food is a subtle synthesis of Asian flavors and many restaurants -- such as the Chitr Pochna -- specialize in it. But as befits Bangkok's reputation as ''gourmet center of Asia'' there is a vast range of cosmopolitan restaurants and styles to choose from.

There is also much to see outside the capital in a country about the size of France. The beach resort of Pattaya is a two-hour air-conditioned coach trip away while the less developed resorts of Songkhla and Phuket, close to the Malaysian border, are linked by air, while Hua Hin, known for its beautiful beaches, is 232 kilometers south.

Chiangmai, the northern capital, is a picturesque old walled city from where it is possible to trek into the hills and visit those tribes for whose artistry this region is noted. In the north also are the famous ruins of Sukhothai, first capital of Thailand in the 13th century, established during the first Thai kingdom soon after the Thai chieftains had liberated themselves from Khmer suzerainty. It was superseded by Ayutthaya in the 14th century. This remained capital city until it was razed by the invading Burmese in 1767.

Some 70 km upriver from Bangkok, Ayutthaya has been cleared of more recent invasions by the jungle and is preserved as a relic of former glory. You can see the elephant kraal where the Kings of Siam trained war elephants and find more fascination, perhaps, in discovering that this city was the model for Bangkok. Its plan, based on the harmonious concept of the universe, was to mirror that structure, centered in the Golden Mount, and even the canals were based on the widths of those in Ayutthaya.

Modern Bangkok, or Krung Rattanakosin as we should call it, offers the traveler some of the best facilities and hotels anywhere. Its Oriental Hotel has just been nominated the best in the world by one business group, while the Erawan and the Dusit Thani and Siam Intercontinental are also of note. It is very accessible -- served by nearly 40 international airlines. Visitors should check health regulations before leaving, and exchange rates are about US$1 = 23 Baht.

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