“The King and I” Through a Thailand Tourist Lens – Backwards Barbarians?

A view of Bangkok near sunset

 

We learned from none other than the great granddaughter of the real-world King that “The King and I” is based on, King Mongkut, that the military junta that now rules Thailand doesn’t look kindly on references to this Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. 

 

Diva extraordinaire Kate Baldwin as Anna, prepares to dance with handsome Paolo Montalban playing the King, in Chicago's Lyric Opera production of "The King & I". Photo: Andrew Cioffi

 

That strikes this Travel Writer who has recently logged several months in Thailand as a good example of how the junta’s presence in the “land of smiles” is front-of-mind to Thais, yet something a tourist has to work to remember.

 

Why would a Broadway play be objectionable?  For one, the Englishwoman’s disdain for the King’s polygamy, a practice now outlawed in Thailand, is central to explaining her character’s ambivalence about staying/going in the Thai court. 

 

Under what's said to be the world's largest banyon tree grove in Phimai Thailand, you see a photo display of visits by the King, with subjects prostrating to show they loyalty and affection. This image comes to mind as you watch the final scenes of "The King & I"

 

More importantly, the plot pivot point revolves around the King’s desire not to be perceived as “barbarian” by the potentially invading British colonials. 

 

Backwards barbarian?  How the tables have turned! 

 

East meets West!

 

Consider first that this same Royal descendent of the Thai King is also a mother whose daughter is now living in Los Angeles where she works with disabled children. 

 

ML. Laksasubha Kridakon, the great granddaughter of King Monghut whom "The King & I" is based on is the very proud mother of two grown children. Her son is an actor and would-be movie star with some high profile credits of late. Her daughter, whom ML proudly relates she required to work as a waitress when she was a teen in order to know what life is like for people who struggle, is very disturbed by what she reads of guns, violence and politics in America

 

This concerned mother asked us to explain what was up with all these guns and shootings in America, and also if Donald Trump’s racism and xenophobia is as bad as Thai media portrays it. 

 

Backwards? 

 

Bangkok's skytrain is fast, efficient and puts the many aging light rail and public transport systems in the US that are in disrepair to shame

 

Bangkok’s Skytrain, skyscape, miles of designer retail stores, and dozens of high-end hotels and restaurants meeting demands in the world’s most touristed city, give much of it a feel closer to Manhattan than many US cities.   Watch local news and you’ll learn that much VC money is going into developing its robotics industry, and as the King in “The King and I’ says, “..etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.”

 

Look to the right of this picture from the resort run by King Monghut's great granddaughter to see lots of little yard ornaments in the shape of Siamese children. This too reminds the American visitor of "The King & I" as they travel through Thailand

 

 Thailand “then and now” measures come a lot more quickly than reaching back to the time of the King Mongkut.  If you went to Bangkok at the turn of the millennium you wouldn’t recognize it today.

 

“The King and I” is fiction, and if anything, like Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado”, is more a mirror of how clueless Western culture is of anything outside itself, and perhaps vice versa.

 

There is one aspect of “The King and I” story that seems to ring true to this day. 

 

In Bangkok on Chinese New Years, the crowds assemble and wait patiently for many hours in hopes of seeing the King, who comes to bless the festivities

 

Thai people LOVE their king.  When you go to a Thai movie theater everyone stands for the requisite tribute to the King.  You may be squirming and thinking the Thais around you are standing under duress, but generally speaking, they are not.  

 

Love for the King is widespread throughout Thailand. His birthday is celebrated as a national holiday. HIs portrait, as shown here, adorns many public spaces

 

You may come to think these royals are a pretty special set when you go to Thai museums and learn about their accomplishments in music, poetry and other arts. The Thais generally feel that the King cares deeply about his people; they in turn love him, though it’s unclear if this will be passed down to the Royal Prince.  (Most Thais like the Princess a lot better—stay tuned.)

 

Paolo Montalban in the Lyric’s production of “The King & I” gives us a more lovable King portrayal.  For anyone who loves congenial Thai ways, that feels so very, very Thai.

 

To read about Thailand tourism on Splash magazine pages use our search bar and put in “Thailand”, “Bangkok”, “Hua Hin”, “Nong Kai”,  “Phimai”, “Udon Thani”, and as the King says, “etcetera, etcetera..”

 

To get tickets to Lyric Opera’s musically superlative production of Rogers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I” visit the Lyric Opera website or call 312 827 5600. 

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