Kings, monks and soldiers …

Having completed our time at Khao Yai our next big name destination would be Doi Inthanon way up north. To get there entailed a drive back to Bangkok and a flight to Chiangmai where we would spend the night before driving on towards Thailand’s highest peak.

Rockjumper birding tours are, above all else, birding tours, travel days were never dull. En route we stopped at wetlands, paddy fields, a temple and one of the former king’s many projects. Not to become all cultural, mind you, to find more birds.

Wat Pa Put Ta No home of the Limestone Wren Babbler, to find it take the noble threefold path and make an offering of mealworms …

Limestone Wren-Babbler

Temples and the king’s image are everywhere in Thailand.

King Bhumibol Adulyade, the name translates as Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power, reigned from 9 June 1946 until his death on 13 October 2016. Thailand is often described as a constitutional monarchy but during that 70 years His Royal Highness was far more of a constant than the frequently changing constitution. His popularity lies, in part, in the many King’s Projects that were created with his name attached. These were usually aimed at social and economic developments at a grass roots level. Thais that I spoke to were warm in their praise of their former king. In his spare time the king was a jazz fan who played the saxophone and a keen photographer, no wonder he was popular!

The new king, Vajiralongkorn, does not enjoy the same reverence as his father although no one was in a hurry to criticise him, Thailand has lèse majesté laws that can lead the talkative to prison. His image is displayed on public buildings and may become more widespread after the period of mourning for his father is over.

Whilst I was in Thailand there was a ceremony to mark the start of construction of the funeral pyre that will take the king back to heaven.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who seized power in 2014, led the ceremony, which saw a crane erect the first of a series of giant steel pillars that will form the cornerstones of what will be a largely wooden pyre next to Bangkok’s sprawling Grand Palace.

The ceremony was infused with the religious ritual that permeates palace life with Buddhist monks chanting mantras and Hindu Brahmin priests blowing conches as workers in hard hats fixed the pillar to a concrete plinth. The Straits Times.

The ceremony encapsulates Thailand as the outsider sees it, it was all about the monarchy, overseen by the military, under the supervision of the Sangha with construction workers hard at work.

The pyre will be more than 50 metres high. The king’s embalmed body, tied in a foetal position, will be consumed by fire, to be lit I believe, by his successor. The date is yet to be announced but is expected to be in October.

According to Wikipedia some 93.6% of Thais are Buddhist (getting very close to the 98% required for a scientific consensus and therefore making it very likely that Bhuddism is the one true religion). Wikipedia also tells us that Thailand …

inherited a strong Southeast Asian tradition of Buddhist kingship that tied the legitimacy of the state to its protection and support for Buddhist institutions. This connection has been maintained into the modern era, with Buddhist institutions and clergy being granted special benefits by the government, as well as being subjected to a certain amount of government oversight.

But the relationship between the Government and the Sangha is not always cosy. Whilst I was there the military were busy searching the Dhammakaya Temple for one of its founders, Phra Dhammachayo, who is accused of embezzlement and appropriation of public land. Was this a case of the military cracking down on an influential opposition figure or is the guy a crook?

The verdict of the man in the street, and it was only one man, was that he is indeed a crook. The Dhammakaya movement, I was told, has been selling a better reincarnation for large sums of money, the more you pay the better your next life will be. His followers would disagree and there was at least passive resistance to the searching of the temple complex. The missing monk is missing still. The emergency powers that were invoked to enable the search have been terminated.

We arrived at the Inthanon Highland Resort as the light faded. As I said earlier, we rarely saw our accommodation in daylight. On this occasion it looked pretty good in the dark, it would be our home for the next three nights.

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