It's not "The King and I"

Dateline: Sat 04 Nov 2006

Nor is Thailand about the sex trade, either.

Both Western-oriented stereotypes in the past have drawn the wrath of Parn -- she's my daughter-in-law, Ratikarn Sudmee, nickname Parn, born in Bangkok and now the wife of our son Zera. Their marriage, first performed in Chicago in 2004 at a Buddhist temple, was not really complete in the eyes of her family until Monday Oct. 23. That's when they literally tied the knot -- both are now wearing thick white string that the Buddhist monks used to join them together in an eight-hour ceremony that included everything but dancing elephants.

To invoke elephants is not an insult. This magnificent but sometimes churlish beast is the national animal of Thailand and a fitting symbol for a country steeped in majesty, sentiment and tradition. During a trip to rural southern Thailand, we saw a small elephant being herded along a road. (If Anerica was the land where the buffalo roamed, then Thailand is the land where the water buffalo still roam -- another animal that has won the affection of Thais because of its docile nature and its supreme ability to help farm, provide milk, babysit, (!) etc).

But back to elephants: According to Jerry Hopkins' marvelous must-read book Thailand Confidential, elephants have been known to go begging in the streets of Bangkok. It's a lifestyle sometimes imposed on them, he says, because they are no longer as needed in the rural parts of the great nation to perform manual labor and other tasks as in the past.

Despite the lack of an elephant at the wedding -- no water buffalo either -- I think it's fair to say that, no matter how cosmopolitan you are, you haven't really lived until you've been to a traditional Thai wedding ceremony. Even tho this one was performed in an elegant Bangkok hotel, the first part of the rithal was straight out of the sands of time: a processional of the bridegroom and his family, with wild throbbing drums, young women in pink dancing, young men in native costume wailing to the drum beat, and the paying of "tolls" as the bridegroom seeks to enter the area where the ceremony will be performed and where his bride will join him.

My son, a big thick blonde, was dressed to look like a young rajah; the bride was beautiful with diamonds sparkling in her hair, yet always modest. The emphasis on respect to elders was impressive: how many can say your son and daughter-in-law have gotten down on their knees in gratitude to you, before a crowd of 200 people, with 9 monks watching?

Anyhow, the wedding was the high point (for me) of what I am calling the trip of a lifetime.

More later on Thailand, an amazing country where everyone really does seem to smile, ("Land of Smiles") where "farangs" (foreigners) are treated almost like royalty, and where there is such enormous national pride that everyone wears yellow almost every day -- that is the color of His Majesty Rama IX, the king who has ruled beneveloently for 60 years now, providing the solid backdrop for most Thai lives.

Is it perfect? No way. The politics are dizzying and byzantine, an impression clearly gathered after 15 days of reading about fallout from the coup. News is great there -- two very fine newspapers produced in English (The Bangkok Post and the Nation, both of which I intend to follow on-line). And yes, there is a sex trade, poverty and too much emphasis on young attractive women being used to sell products, etc. But it is wonderful country, with wonderful kind people. And remarkably free of the worst of Western intrusion, altho Ronald McDonald is there. But we saw him only twice in Bangkok, and both times he was "waiing" (hands in the prayer position in front of his chin, head slightly tilted).

Photos to come, eventually. Yes, I did take pictures of the toilets. But also of the orchids, the pristine beaches, the delightful and endless food and of course, a water buffalo or two.



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