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Royal Cremation Ceremony Exhibition, Sanam Luang

Thursday 16 November 2017

Preparations........Less than 48 hours after arriving in Bangkok I’m out on a trip and one that seems to reflect the mood that 2017 has so far left me in. The fact that I’m here at all seems remarkable. I desperately need a fresh start after the pain and agony that started with my illness in early February and culminated with the passing away of dear Dad in September. If this relatively short tour season is at all successful, I will dedicate this tour to him. I’m hoping that the somber occasion of today’s trip goes a long way towards closure which has not only for me but for other members of my family been a truly annus horribilis (a disastrous year).
Initial business........As with all my recent trips to Thailand, I need to change money and set my budget before anything else and that means an often grueling trip into the city. Initially I take a songtheaw to Khubon Road and as it’s near lunchtime I stop for kow moo dang at my favorite street restaurant where the owner steadfastly refuses to give up the secret if his delicious sauce that goes with the dish. It’s almost always packed here. Now it’s time to head towards Ramintra Road to pick up a number 26 bus that will take me to Suphan Kwai. After a visit to BIG ‘C’ it’s on to Linda Exchange in Pradiphat Road. The exchange rate is not good I know but as mentioned miracles are hard to come by this year. Returning to BIG ‘C’, it’s another bus ride deep into the city.
Sanam Luang........According to Wikipedia, Sanam Luang is a 74.5 rai (29.5 acres) open field and public square in front of Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace. Today that description is not accurate but to be fair to Wikipedia, they should not change it as to all intents and purposes it will once again return to an open field and public square in the not too distant future. Presently however it houses the Exhibition on the Royal Cremation Ceremony of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej Borommanathbobitra, an exhibition that was intended to last a month but is now expected to continue into a second month, such has been the public interest.
Exhibition on the Royal Cremation Ceremony........With much of Sanam Luang and surrounding area closed to traffic we are obliged to walk to the entrance point. For me it is the first time I’ve been here since the King’s death but for Katoon she visited when the King was Resting in State in the Palace. Of course I don’t know what to expect but at the entrance I see a great deal of organisation with checking of documents, bag checks and issuing of badges, then once inside there appears a sea of white plastic seats which were likely needed in the early days of the exhibition but today, while the crowds are still impressive, it seems we will be allowed onto the site relatively quickly. Initially we are seated but soon called forward into the complex.

Assembly for the Royal Cremation Ceremony Exhibition

As I write this the day after the event, I have had time to reflect, time to analyse and time to try to understand. One has to acknowledge the effort, the perhaps tens of thousands of man hours that have gone into this presentation, the sheer attention to detail, the craftsmanship and artistic design that have resulted in something quite unique. Every aspect of the design of the Phra Meru Mas (Royal Crematoriam) buildings has meaning, both spiritual and practical as do the numerous other buildings and pavilions within the grounds. One is compelled to ask the question, ‘Why has all this been created for just one man?’ Certainly in the West after two great wars, I feel we live in subdued times, perhaps lacking inspiration but that wasn’t always the case. I read about the splendour of Victorian rule, the pageantry at home, the Delhi Durbars, presentations and exhibitions of a proud nation. What we see here is just that. Of course there are critics; there always will be, stating that it’s all a waist of public money but these events have proved to be stepping stones in the creation of human history, whether it's been the building of the pyramids, the great temples of Angkor or Machu Picchu it’s all about national pride.

Royal Cremation Ceremony Exhibition Ground

In term is content, the exhibition, of course, is dominated by Phra Meru Mas but the site also includes halls, pavilions and salas, all in the best tradition of Thai artistic design. Part of the exhibition covers the life of King Bhumibol from childhood; some of the toys he played with are on display but most of the exhibits give a flavour his life's work as the nation’s leader. The cameras and other equipment he used to record and plan his projects to improve the life of his people which were to earn UN recognition are proudly displayed. Other aspects include records relating to international affairs. However the more substantial part of the exhibition relates purely to the cremation ceremony itself. As mentioned an incredible amount of artwork and design was required. Most of the exhibits are copies of the objects used in the ceremony ranging from the royal chariot, gun carriage and Royal Urn to sculptures of Thai mythology and tradition that made the ceremony such an incredible spectacle. The sculptures, murals and other artwork all have Thai names but even when translated into English, the meaning is lost on a mere mortal like me. I’m sure for Thais there is far more comprehension but it is clear even to them, at times, it is bewildering.

Royal Cremation Ceremony Exhibition

As a visitor you are free to walk around the exhibition halls and around the compound. I was told at the start of the visit that we would be restricted to 1 hour. In the event, it was much more relaxed than that, with different colour coded badges evident, an indication that there are less visitors now than at the start of the exhibition. Believing there was a restriction I rather flew though some of the halls while still keeping a photographic and mental record but in the event we probably spent more like 2 hours at the exhibition.

Wat Phra Kaew and the Ministry of Defence Building

Returning to base........Exiting the compound there are good views of Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, The City Pillar Shrine and the Ministry of Defence Building but a fair walk to the nearest bus stop. Free drinks and even medical services are provided free by supporters and institutions. Inevitably there is a wait for transport to Victory Monument but even that’s free. The quickest way back to Kilo 8 is by public minibus but by the time we reach VM it’s already dark and in the middle of the rush hour. Unbelievably nine lines are formed up for the service. With vans arriving at intervals of 5-10 minutes it’s not hard to do the maths and I’m starting to get irritated. Who’d be a commuter? By the time we reach the residence it’s nearly 8pm and I’m spent. Tomorrow is a day off for me so I can end the day with a smile in a win win situation.

Review and Conclusion

To make a recommendation for a visit to the Royal Cremation Ceremony Exhibition would be pointless as the exhibition is unlikely to remain open for more than another month. The whole site is due to be dismantled. Thais believe that while it is right to hold such an exhibition that the late King would not wish his subjects to grieve for him indefinitely and that they move on in their lives. Neither does anybody want a permanent reminder of grief in their midst. It’s likely that the exhibits will find their way into local displays throughout the Kingdom as pieces of history rather than objects of grief.
Throughout the exhibition you cannot fault the organisers for their attention to detail, their organisation and the quality of the display with narrative in Thai, English and Chinese. One thing is certain; I have witnessed a piece of history today, whatever it represents. There will be no turning back!
The weather today has been overcast with occasional light rain but with some sunny periods, generally cooler for Bangkok (low 30'sC). November is the start of the cool season with little rain, and high season for travel.