The Late King Bhumibol Adulyadej

This year has been a rough year in terms of losing beloved icons. 

Think of the celebrities who passed away this year. Now concentrate on the one you loved and will miss the most.

Remember how you felt in the moment you learned he/she died. Remember both the personal feeling of loss, as well as the intellectual grief that saw the vacuum they left.

Now imagine that you were raised from the time you could speak to say that person’s name with reverence. Imagine that from the time you first packed your vinyl Mario Bros or Disney Princess backpack and headed off to school, you were taught that this person was akin to a parent. In fact, this person was greater than a parent. A parent is a mere human, but this person is like a god—benevolent and dedicated to your well-being. You have never bought or sold anything with handling images of this person. Every week at school, you sing a song written by and dedicated to that person, and rise for that same song before every movie you watch in theatres. Imagine that this person is the very fabric of your society, the very definition of your culture, and the very center of your nation’s stability and order.

This is the connection most Thais feel towards the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

It took me some time to appreciate and sympathize with this depth of feeling. The disconnect I felt with Thai grief was due in part to the fact that I’ve never felt a great loss at the passing of any famous stranger. Moreover, I had allowed myself to read the unofficial history of his life—which includes the forbidden criticisms of his legacy. It’s hard to appreciate a man’s accomplishments when you learn of his secret frustrations.

I first learned of the king’s passing while on a short return visit to the U.S. I remember being unsurprised, as there were prior reports of failing health, but still gasping at the implications. In my mind, it felt like Yeats’s “Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” The political implications of Thailand’s stabilizing father passing on were not lost on me.

Where I was taken aback was in Thailand’s extreme response. Thailand’s response to tragedy is always a bit less than measured. And from my understanding from abroad, it seemed Thailand was overreacting. Bars were closed, costing people like my girlfriend precious income. Celebration of any kind was forbidden; so public music was unofficially banned. The people, Thais and foreigners alike, were urged not to wear bright colors. Anyone criticizing the king was violently dragged to their knees before his portrait and coerced into apologies and respect.

 I scoffed. I raged.

Then I flew back.

As I flew, I pondered the king’s impact on the lives of his subjects. I pondered their abject loyalty and devotion. Suddenly I started to understand.

To help me make that leap to empathize with Thai people who would insist that the world stop rotating for a year just so that they can process their grief, I thought of a world leader that I greatly revere: President Obama. 

Before you scoff, let me justify my choice. Overall, I am proud of his accomplishments as president. He doesn’t represent the radical shift to the left that my fellow progressives had hoped for, but he possesses, at the very least, an intellectual poise and personal charisma that strong leaders are made of. In many ways, he’s analogous to the late king in that very fact—he has a cult of personality that numbs many valid criticisms. Intellectually, I’m unsatisfied with his presidency, but emotionally, I just fucking love the guy. Some would point out the blood on his hands. I’m quick to wave it away and ask what world leader doesn’t have blood on his hands. I’m quick to wave it away and ask what world leader doesn’t have blood on his hands. Had Obama died tragically (but not assassinated—that’s quite a different scenario), I’m sure the grief and loss I’d feel would be akin to what Thais feel now.

When I returned, there was a noticeably different atmosphere in Thailand. It was quiet. The nights were darker. A great majority of people carried on with their lives, but more calmly and wearing black. And it all seemed…appropriate. After all, their father, their demi-god, their second Buddha, their caretaker, their center, their leader, their light, their constant, and, most crucially, their hope: these had all left them in the passing of one figure.

Mourning the king isn’t just about mourning a celebrity. It isn’t about mourning a political figure, either. And it isn’t simply about mourning a beloved father. Thailand now mourns the loss of perhaps its greatest stabilizing force during the 20th century, the one constant through seven decades of military coupes and constant constitutional reconstruction. The king modernized his country and prioritized sustainable development before it was ever a buzzword. He believed that his reign represented the truest form of democracy, elevated above any parliament or senate, because he was the greatest power of Thailand with an ear bent toward the will of his subjects. His seemingly endless royal projects testify to his responsiveness to Thailand’s multifarious needs. 

In effect, Thailand mourns the death of a benevolent god, the essence of their national identity.

Happy Birthday to ME!

November 2015.

Despite my beard and stubborn little gut, there’s still an 8-year-old boy inside me that once a year wants to jump on the nearest table, put on a paper-coned hat, and shout, “It’s my birthday! What’d you get me?”

But my learned social composure and 32-year-old crow’s feet always keep me from making a scene. Luckily for the little despondent birthday boy inside, however, Thai people have cultivated a more subtle way to get attention.

“Anyone want pizza for lunch?” I blurted in the teacher’s lounge moments before morning assembly. A ripple of excitement flittered across the faces of a few of my fellows. B-r-r-r-r-ring! There was the bell that regulated the lives of student and teacher alike.

As the students lined up outside sucking in the moistening morning air, I gazed around in wonderment at how unremarkable the day would be. The sun wasn’t any brighter or dimmer. The students weren’t any more or less chipper. The sky was the same shade of pale blue with the same brownish overlays of pollution wafting here and there.

Thump! Thump! Thump! The bass drum counted in the national anthem. The flag-pulley’s irregular squeaks struck a dissonant harmony with the patriotic chimes of the xylophone no differently than any other morning. The tatters of the flag sighed apathetically in the light morning breeze.

On my last birthday, I had only been living in Thailand for a couple months, so it was the usual celebration—out to a bar for the night with any old acquaintance who could make it. The difference was that my acquaintances were new, not old, and there was actually cake. The Thais aren’t shy about carrying a cake into a bar and asking the service staff to help with cutting and plating. In a way, last year’s birthday was an official welcome to the Land of Smiles—a welcome to a foreigner using universal elements of birthday partying.

This year, my birthday landed in the middle of the workweek. That meant that I had to teach classes and get on with life as if nothing special was going on. It also meant I wasn’t going out partying that night or doing anything extravagant.

It’s only fitting, I told myself. Thirty-two is an unremarkable age. Tuesday is an unremarkable day of the week. Why should anyone make a fuss? I certainly wasn’t going to. Propriety had long taught me not to make a fuss, even on my birthday. However, honesty reminded me that I craved the attention.

So I went about it the Thai way. I ordered two large pizzas from my favorite pizza place. As the lunch hour neared its closing, my treat had finally arrived.

I carried the two giant boxes proudly through the canteen, feeling the heat of the students’ glares almost as viscerally as from the bottom of the pizza. As I crossed paths with students stumbling about as they’re wont to do during free periods, I had to stifle my laughter at how stunned and confused they were when they eyed my lunch. I became aware of a slowly rising mob of zombies salivating for the spoils of ambush. Don’t look back, I told myself.

I entered the teacher’s room, the beam of my smile lighting my way. “Oh, Lord,” uttered one British teacher.

The aromas of freshly baked dough and tomato sauce comingled and filled the room, betraying to all within nose-shot what repast we teachers were enjoying. I opened the box and felt a burst of steam flow through my face. My colleagues stood nearby, perplexed at what to do next. “Help yourselves,” I said.

They reached in and tried to manage the greasy cheesiness without the aid of plate, napkin, or fork. Eventually I brought A4 paper in from my classroom to serve as impromptu plates. And we all ate in satisfied silence. Compliments were given to the pizza restaurant, inspiring recommendations and a rough description of its location.

But in ten short minutes the tyrannical bell rang, and I left two largely uneaten pizzas on my desk in the staff room and proceeded to my next class. On my brief shuffle from staff room to classroom, rumors of “pizza” were being whispered among the students. They gazed at me with curiosity and supplication. A change was gradually infecting the students—some primal parasite prodding their mouths to water and their gait to limp. Pizzaaaa.

I finished my class without episode and reentered the staffroom. My pizza still sat there cooling. I grabbed another piece and chewed while contemplating the acute angles that marked it’s missing pieces. How in the hell was I going to finish this thing? No way was I bringing it home! I’ve become my mother—overzealous in preparation. It didn’t help that the other teachers had already eaten during the lunch hour, before the pizza arrived.

Then it occurred to me—I was in a building full of teenagers, whose appetites miraculously never wane even in spite of gluttonous gorging. I went back to my classroom and announced to the four girls milling about, “If you want a piece of pizza you may help yourselves.”

Beams of light shot from their eyes. “Really?”

“Yes, but keep it amongst yourselves. It’s a secret. I don’t have enough to go around.”

They each grabbed a slice and began chomping down on it. Immediately I realized I had made several mistakes. First, they were already late to class, and I was rewarding their tardiness with pizza. Second, there were teachers on other floors who should have had first dibs. Third, there has never been a time in human history when a teenager has been able to keep pizza a secret. Within minutes, other students were creeping out of their classrooms asking for pizza. I had to tell each student that other teachers needed to have a slice, but when the teachers have finished they could have the leftovers. That promise, however empty, was enough to keep the zombies at bay for another hour.

At afternoon break, I began visiting all the other classrooms. “I have pizza in the staffroom for all teachers, if you want a slice.” The Filipino teachers knew immediately what was up: “Oh, it’s your birthday today?”

One by one, teachers stepped into the staff room to claim their slice. Being walled with windows on all sides, the staffroom was fully visible from outside. Thus, students gathered around the windows peering in, drooling over promised pizza, groaning whenever another teacher entered the staffroom.

I entered the staffroom after making my rounds, passing a panting, murmuring mob of hungry students on my way inside. “Teacher, now?” they inquired.

“Let me make sure every teacher’s had some.”

“OOOOOOHHHH!”

I examined the pizza when I entered. There were 4 slices left, and I had taken a request to bring one up to the head teacher. I grabbed a slice and looked up. Fog waxed and waned on the windows of the staffroom as students smeared themselves against the glass. I couldn’t possibly pass the famished throng unscathed. I darted left where there were fewer of them, and dashed to the nearest staircase. I glanced over my shoulder—they had begun limping my way. I had only speed and wits as my advantage over them.

After delivering the pizza to my boss, I cautiously crept downstairs. They students were still smudged against the windows salivating. I ducked quickly into the staffroom–the only safe haven from the ravenous teenage mob. The pizza had been wholly consumed, with only a mound of cheese and toppings in the middle of each box. I brought the boxes into my classroom, with the undead in tow. “Eat your hearts out,” I said.

Their eyes narrowed. They licked their lips. They stared gluttonously at the boxes. After a momentary pause, they attacked the boxes. Seeing its contents, they slowly looked up from their scavenged scraps as if to say, “That’s it?” But they simultaneously shrugged and tore up chunks of cheese and toppings and devoured them. And like a gust of wind, they were gone.

Only an hour later, when the final bell had rung, did some of the students appear to me, looking human again, and wished me a happy birthday.

I’m baaaaaaaack!

Hello, hello, hello!

One hello for every month I’ve been silent. I’ve been on an unannounced hiatus from blogging. I’d love to give some magical, marvelous explanation for the non-activity. I’d love to say I was off in some monastery for three months meditating with monks. I’d love to say I was high on life chillin’ with Thai locals. I’d love to say that I was on some walking tour in some untapped national forest getting my mind blown by all sorts of flora and fauna.

Honestly, I’ve just been busy and unmotivated. I had planned this amazing 10-post article leading up to my one-year anniversary in Thailand on September 9th. But I failed at getting that out in time. That’s right: one year. Thirteen months now. It’s hard for me to believe. It’s all gone by so fast. And in settling I’ve lost a bit of my spirit of adventure. At least my bank account has. Anyway, the novelty has worn off for me a bit, and I’m sure that’s been reflected in some of my latter posts. The sharp decline in readership during my last few posts have been alarmingly telling with regards to reader interest.

So I’m changing strategy. Quality over quantity. Rather than posting frequently, I’ll be posting as I feel true inspiration. It’ll make writing more enjoyable for me, and reading more enjoyable for you.

Here’s what you can look forward to in the immediate future. I did write have some articles some time ago that I’m still keen on publishing. I just need to spiff them up a bit. I also still have that serial article I referred to above. In fact, now that I’m in its revision phase, I’m quite excited about it. After a barrage of buffed backlog, you can look forward to earnestly inspired writing on a probably infrequent timetable. That’s fancy talk for “I’ll write again when I damn please.”

Check back again soon for the first serial article! It’s good to be back!

Hiatus Completum

Hello faithful readers. You may have noticed I haven’t posted something for about a month now. Some of you were inundated with my presence, in the flesh, during my visit to the United States. If you weren’t one of those unfortunate souls to have to entertain me and rejuvenate my hope for humanity via drinks and conversation, then you probably also didn’t know of my venture to the motherland to gather supplies and recollect my social wellbeing. As you have probably guessed by now, this explains my digital absence. But now I’ve returned revived and triumphant, and I’m here to continue this blogging exercise. 

I cannot predict how consistent or dependable my posts will be in the coming months. Currently I’m on “summer” holiday. That is, the Thai school year begins mid-May and ends mid-March, so I am enjoying two months’ paid respite from the stress and joys of teaching. Such a recess of responsibility entails everything from taking nibbles at preparations for next school year to lying around doing diddly squat to taking minor excursions to nearby points of interest. My next post will be a much overdo description of one of such trips–to Ko Samed. See you there (at the posting, not the island).

Sorry for the Lapse!

Hey faithful readers,

 I feel I may have let you down with the giant lapse in posts. Allow me to explain why. For one, I’ve had to write three 90-minute exams for my classes—classes that I’ve almost entirely winged the entire term. Between having to look up good testing theory to make sure my exams were fair (newly on my bucket list–get education credentials and education Master’s degree), and dealing with the ever-temperamental Microsoft Word when formatting them, it’s been a frustrating and time-consuming process. 

In addition, I’m also preparing for two new courses for the next school year: a first language Mathayom 6 (high school senior) English class, and a classic literature elective. Next year is going to be a busy year for me as a teacher.

 Finally, I actually have been writing. But it’s been a treatise of Thailand’s education. It’s not finished, and it’s becoming rather lengthy. I’m also starting to discover that it needs more research and citation to beef it up. So it, or at least installments of it, will be forthcoming. In the meantime, I’ll post some shorter posts that are completely frivolous.

Thai Music, Part 3: The Influence of the West

As the story of Thai music continues into the final segment of this three-part series, we examine some of the highlights of the myriad of Western-influenced genres and artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. It was difficult to be selective in sharing these highlights, because there are so many. To add to the difficulty, Pattaya Countdown 2015, the city’s 7-day free music festival ushering in the new year, featured some of my favorites among these artists.

Jazz

As with American music, the story of Thai popular music in the 20th century begins with jazz. Starting in the 1930s, jazz started to dominate Thai airwaves. One key and influential early jazz composer was Khru Eua Sunthornsana, who formed the jazz orchestra-band Suntharaporn. His music applied Thai melodies to jazz harmony, and became known as pleng Thai sakorn. Below is a sample. You can hear that nostalgic old jazz instrumentation reminiscent of the roaring 20s. But if you listen carefully, the melody carries that Thai pentatonic characteristic, too.

The music continued to evolve into a romantic music called luk grung—highly popular with the Thai upper class. King Bhumibol himself is regarded as an “accomplished” jazz musician (whatever that means). He is famous for being a jazz aficionado, and plays saxophone. He has also composed a few pieces, like “Candlelight Blues” featured below, which has also been covered by modern American jazz players like John Scofield.

And just to prove that he is capable of playing and capturing the jazz aesthetic, here’s a sample of his Majesty the King playing a solo:

Rock

In the 1960s, rock ‘n’ roll shook the whole world, and Thailand was no exception. Many Thai musicians began to particularly embrace the likes of Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Soon, bands emulating Richard’s sound popped up, and became known as wong shadow. It’s hard to find a good sample on YouTube, so you’ll have to use your imagination as I describe it. Picture some of the idiosyncrasies of Classical and Folk Thai music—a tempered scale highly pentatonic in sound, xylophones and drums that resound their relation to Chinese music, and flutes and percussion that belie Indian influences. Now picture them in that melancholy rhythm and blues of the early 1960s.

Quickly wong shadow evolved into Thai string—a genre of Thai music that resembles Western pop, folk, and rock. One of the first bands to emerge from this movement was The Impossibles:

Over the course of the 1960s and 70s, Thai popular became less Thai, and more Western music with Thai lyrics. It abandoned Thai melodic tradition and embraced the Western scale and vocalization. Rewat Buddhinan is credited as one of the first to lead this departure.

Just like the anti-war music of the 1970s in the United States, Thai rock music had its own protest era, creating a genre known as Phleng Pheua Chiwit (“Songs for Life”). The band Caravan was the most famous in this genre, and forefront in the Thai democracy movement. When police and right wing activists attacked students at Thammasat University in 1976, Caravan along with other bands and activists fled to the rural countryside. They continued to write songs and perform in rural Thailand for local farmers. They deserve a spotlight here:

During the 1980s, phleng pheua chiwit took on a more nationalistic nature. Artists like Carabao and Pongsit Kampee dominated the genre with songs that trumpeted a love of country. To this day, many Thai people regard this latter movement with warmth and enthusiasm, even though the genre declined in the 1990s. The following Pongsit Kampee song is particularly popular, and I’ve heard it many times blasting from cheap speakers in the market:

Modern Thai String (Pop/Rock)

With the fall of phleng pheua chiwit came the resurgence, alongside electronic luk thung and mor lam, of Thai string. Much divergent from its early roots, Thai string of the 90s demonstrated a parallel of pop and rock in the West. Bubblegum pop artists such as Christina Aguilar (not to be confused with Christina Aguilara), Asanee-Wasan, and Bird Thongchai emerged with dainty melodies, formulaic harmonies, and canned rhythms. To me, there’s not much difference between Thai bubblegum pop and Korea’s K-pop, other than the language. Here’s Bird Thongchai for an example:

Britpop-influenced alt rock groups also emerged, including Modern Dog, Loso, Crub, and Proud. In the example below, you can hear the ethereal delay-heavy electric guitar, acoustic guitar rhythm, and dominant sweet vocals.

Thailand also had its own parallel grunge of sorts, featuring bands like Y Not 7. I feel it’s important as we venture into the more modern rock of Thailand to acknowledge the shear stupidity in some of these bands’ names. Demonstrating a limited familiarity with English, these bands clearly don’t appreciate how the sound and words of a name can (falsely) suggest their style. So you have Thai grunge bands with boy band names, and Thai alt rock band names that feel like heavy metal names. Anyway, here’s a Y Not 7 song that reminds me a bit of a Stone Temple Pilots ballad, cheaply recorded, of course:

As Thai rock music has moved into the 21st century, it’s become a bit more tolerable. One thing that impresses me about Thai music in general is the level of musicianship. Even the more formulaic, even rather annoying pop artists are backed by drummers, guitarists, and keyboardists that can really fucking shred. They’re quite accomplished, even if their Steve-Vai-esque tap solos don’t fit the dancing and singing of their picture-perfect pop idols. The place where this musicianship shines is in modern Thai alt and hard rock. So here are two of my favorite Thai bands: Bodyslam and Big Ass.

These names, by the way, are no small names (even if they’re classic examples of stupid names). Almost every Thai at least knows the names, and many wear their t-shirts and try to emulate them in their own crudely formed garage bands (is there any other kind of garage band?). Seriously, I earned street cred with my high school students for admitting I like Bodyslam.

So here’s one of Big Ass’s songs. When I saw them live at Pattaya Countdown 2015, I wanted to light something on fire. So fucking much energy!

Finally, I’ll leave off with the first Thai song that started my journey of understanding this key element of Thai culture. As one of Thailand’s biggest, most popular rock bands, Bodyslam’s new album’s feature track played over the ad-pumping TVs aboard BTS Skytrain in Bangkok. For a solid month, I heard the marketing snippets of this song twice a day—in my morning and evening commutes. And yet, it’s still one of my favorites.

Final thoughts:

It cannot be emphasized enough how important music is to Thai culture. That may seem a rather banal understatement. After all, music is important to every culture. But Thai music is part of Thailand’s national identity. The Thai recording industry is huge and highly independent. And the music it produces is everywhere. It pumps from a thousand speakers in one neighborhood alone. You cannot go anywhere without hearing Thai music, and there are many places where Thai music is the only music being played. Thai music is an essential part of the Thailand experience.