We arrived in Bangkok and instantly the differences were unmistakeable. The roads were completely paved and there were sidewalks, as well as a Skytrain and heaps of car traffic. “There’s no garbage,” Nerys noted. And restaurants with doors & windows, and glass malls and brand name stores, hundreds of them. All the trappings of a modern city.
There was something else as well. All around the city – at Skytrain stations, on billboards, in stores, in temples, in taxis – everywhere photos of King Bhumibol Adulyadej who had passed away a month ago. Buildings were decorated with white and black ribbons and many Thais wore all black or at the very least, black armbands. Some wore black t-shirts with the words “I was born in the reign of King Rama IX of Thailand”. There were also portraits of him painted in all different ways and photos for sale.
You can’t pick up that much understanding of a country passing through for a week or even a few weeks. But here was something very palpable. How often is it that someone in a position of great wealth and influence is also a person of vision, self-sacrifice, compassion for the people and self-discipline? In King Bhumibol it seems the Thais had such a person. When he took the throne, the King’s oath was “We will reign with dhamma for the benefits and happiness of the Siamese people.”
When you compare Thailand to surrounding Asian countries, you can see how far Thailand has come. The monarchy gave the country a strong stabilizing force. The king followed the Ten Principles of a Dhammaraja (a king of righteousness), which are things like giving in a good way, selfless sacrifice for the greater good, and living a simple life.
He studied the needs of the poor through visits and talking with them, and came up with ways to improve their lives. One of his most famous projects was to help farmers convert their opium farms to more moral and profitable farms growing fruit and vegetables.
He was greatly loved and respected by the Thai people, though I’m sure he had his faults. But the point is that you could feel how such respect, love and trust from the people creates an atmosphere where the leader is then free to continue leading with even greater wisdom, which in turn engenders more respect and love.
As I stood on the Skytrain platform and looked at his photo against a black background, I too felt such sorrow that the Thai people had lost their King. A leader like that is a rarity. And how do we create the conditions for such a leader to emerge? Perhaps the first step is in our hands – to speak with respect and kindness about our own leaders, and to temper our words of criticism.