During the years after WW II Thailand, which had been a relatively tranquil country and the only southeast Asia region not colonized by European powers, began to seethe with unrest as if a latent volcano under it was about to erupt.
In the nineteenth century when Anna Leonowens made her celebrated sojourn there, the country was ruled by King Mongkut as an absolute monarchy. In 1932 after civil upheaval and coups d'etat led by military officers, it ceased to be a monarchy under an all-powerful king, changed its name from Siam to Thailand and became a monarchical republic. A few years ago major unrest began and has persisted. Communist protests have shut down Bangkok's airport from time to time and now a curfew has been established. What will happen next is anyone's guess.
In 1963 our eldest daughter, a new university graduate who had studied Thai language, was offered a job teaching English at a business college in Bangkok. This golden opportunity came through Peace Corps friends who were stationed there. The job was temporary--only six months--but it was a chance to see another world. In letters home, she told us that Bangkok seemed not to be a tourist city. A twelve story hotel was the largest hostelry, she said. Car traffic downtown was terrible and Thai food was wonderful. She lived in the suburbs in a small house built over a klong [swamp]. Water buffaloes wandered around the place. She and the few Peace Corps people seemed to be the only Americans in evidence except for two CIA agents--the tragedy of Vietnam was near at hand. That was Bangkok as she saw it thirty seven years ago.
In 1996 when I went on a tour to Thailand and Nepal, I found an entirely different Bangkok. Tourism was big business and the Thais were profiting. After a seventeen hour flight from Los Angeles I, like all the members of the tour group, was in a woozy condition. Nevertheless, once in our hotel on the banks of Chao Phraya, I couldn't resist stepping out of the air-conditioned room onto its little balcony into the warm, humid air and looking down on "River of Kings". The next day I spent recovering from the flight and by evening was revived enough to go on a dinner cruise on the river. Next day we settled down to the exciting business of seeing a piece of Thailand and started by driving west into the country to view the famed floating markets on the Damnoen river.
Embarked in two passenger boats, we sailed past stilted houses whose residents looked down at at us without curiosity--goggling tourists were old stuff to them.
Later in the day we watched a dozen elephants go placidly through their paces at a show. If the is such a thing as a national animal, the elephant must claim that title in Thailand. On our third day the tour program took us to the royal palace and numerous Buddhist temples set together in what is an imperial city complex.
There were strict dress rules for visitors: No short shorts, no halter tops, no open-toed shoes. There were so many elaborate buildings crowded together in this area that it was bewildering.
It was grand but I compared it mentally with Beijing's Forbidden City and decided I preferred the open spaces and elegant simplicity of the latter. That night we ate an excellent Thai dinner and watched classical Thai dancing in a room so frigidly air-conditioned that it was a relief to get into the steamy air outside. The following day we drove west again from Bangkok to see one of the big tourist attractions, the River Kwai and its storied bridge. We were nor disappointed. The bridge was real and we walked across it.
(I had the impression however, that Kwai was not the Thai name for river.) There was train station there and we had a three-quarter hour ride around this bit of of country--fun and interesting but the sears were very hard.
Our city stay ended, we went north from Bangkok to the royal summer palace at Bang Pa. There were great open spaces in this beautifully landscaped park. The palace buildings were attractive and the pavilions charming. The sun was hot but humidity was low. If I were king, I'd live at Bang Pa. On again, we stopped to prowl through the ancient capital city of Ayauthaya. Here were impressive temples and huge, meticulously carved stone Buddhas.
Years ago this place had been overgrown like Ankgor War but rescued, it has become a national park. Going north again, we had a late lunch at Lopburi. With other central Thailand cities, Lopburi dates back to neolithic times. It has its handsome, ancient temples but it is different in an unique way from any city I've ever heard of on the planet because it has a large population of small monkeys. These are not merely tolerated by the citizenry, but pampered by them. As we crossed a main street, I noticed two little ones sitting sided by side on the curb, apparently in earnest conversation with each other. Possibly they were waiting for a bus. No one paid any attention to them. As we stood outside a temple devoted to them, one little rascal darted out, snatched her glasses off the face of the woman standing next to me, and vanished behind the wall. Luckily, our local guide seemed used to this sort of antic and knew how to handle it. He too disappeared behind the wall and when he re-emerged, the glasses were in his hand. This happened so fast that my neighbor was still gasping in dismay when her property was returned. Lopburi, the "monkey city" is an unforgettable place.
We ended the full day at a small hotel in the city of Phitsanulokon on the banks of Nan Rivee. We were now on our way to the northern borders of the country--to the Golden Triangle on the Mekong river where Thailand, Mranmar and Laos come together. It was another exciting prospect to mull over and look forward to.