I Remember His Majesty
October 16, 2016
I want to express my deep condolences to the good people of Thailand for the passing of His Majesty King Rama IX.
In his honor, I thought I would recall the two times I got within arm’s length of His Majesty. You might wonder, but these are true stories.
The first time we “met” was by pure accident. Pikun and I were married on Loy Krathong Day 1971. But we were in the middle of a teaching semester and had no time to take off. So we planned on a “honeymoon” around the New Years, 1972.
I had a friend who did a lot of upcountry travel at the time and he had just visited a Lisu hill tribe village way up north on the Kok River, near the Burmese border. At the time the Kok River was quite isolated and one had to go way off the beaten trail to find it. Today it is smack-dab in the middle of Tourist County and the river is now a tourist highway for leisurely rafting trips. Not so back then. It was considered a “wild river”.
My backcountry friend knew we were planning a trip to that area so he gave us a picture of the headmaster of a tribal school in a village he had just visited (photographs were hard to come by then and were prized possessions). He said to give the headmaster this picture and he would probably feed us and let us stay in the village and sleep on the school floor overnight. Our honeymoon wasn’t going to be Paradise Island, but it was to be one we would never forget.
The Lisu village was on the Kok River. You had to take a long tailed canoe taxi a couple of hours down the river from the town of Fang. It was New Year’s Day by the time we got there. It was a steep climb from the river to the village and along the way we encountered some very strange goings on. Every few feet along the climb were heavily armed Thai military, M16s at the ready. We didn’t say anything right away. Quite often during those days bandits roamed this area so we thought maybe this was the soldiers’ station. But it soon became apparent that this was more than that.
As we reached the top of the climb, in view of the school building, I noticed that the whole village was out on the school playground. They were dressed in their most beautiful traditional clothes and they were all at attention. I had a feeling this wasn’t in our honor, although that would have been pretty cool. It turned out to be even cooler than that.
I turned to the last soldier on the trail, “Excuse me sir. Is there anything special going on here?” “You don’t know?” he asked surprised. “His Majesty is visiting the village today. It is New Years and every New Years the Royal Family visits the tribal villages and gives out gifts to the people.”
Just then we heard the beat of chopper blades and looked up to see two helicopters descending onto an open flat area. Within a minute or two of landing, out came the King, the Queen and all the whole Royal Family, accompanied by a load of military brass. As I looked around I noticed that Pikun and I were the only people there who weren’t either villagers, military, or part of the Royal Family. And I was secretly hoping we were not going to be arrested.
As we were shaking in our hiking boots, the Royal Family casually walked within a foot or two of us, over to the waiting villages to hand out their gifts. The King was wearing a military uniform as was the Crown Prince. Queen Sirikit was wearing a big floppy hat and looked as beautiful as a queen in a fairy story. Pikun and I were both left breathless.
After a few minutes greeting the beautifully clad Lisu tribesmen, the Royal Family came back the same way, boarded the choppers and flew off to the next village, never knowing how they had helped us to celebrate our wedding and had given us a honeymoon story like no other.
Our second encounter was a bit more formal. Later that year Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip, and Prince Charles came to visit Thailand and they planned on staying at the royal Phu Phing Palace on Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep. That meant that the whole city would turn out to greet them. Every school would wait along the Royal procession. We were all given British and Thai flags, placed along the road and waited.
Down the road they came, slowly, the King’s very famous Yellow Royals Royce leading the way. As they drove down the road they were greeted by our shouting, flag waving students There was Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip of Great Britain sitting alongside their Majesties the King and Queen of Thailand. And Queen Elizabeth was doing her patented Royal wave. We of course all waved back. The motorcade made a turn and went to the recently completed Huay Kaew Road and up the mountain to the royal palace.
As a side note, the day before the Royal motorcade, Pikun and I had taken a motorcycle trip up the Mae Saa Valley. We almost literally bumped into a pack of about 50 elephants. They were all in a field and doing all sorts of elephant tricks, playing football, pulling logs, playing music. Lots of stuff they do for tourists now, but rarely ever seen back then.
It turns out that we had come across a dress rehearsal of the elephant show that was to be given especially in honor of the British Royal Family the next day. According to The Telegraph report at the time: (Queen Elizabeth saw) elephant logging in Chiang Mai. A sacred elephant she was due to feed ‘sat on a police car in a fit of temper, and was sent back to the zoo’. I am sorry I didn’t get to see that.
His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej was on the Thai throne as long as I have been on this planet, 70 years. No one did more for his country, and no one was loved more.