(First published April 2012)
There are places where one really can’t be too careful when it comes to etiquette. One such place is Thailand. In that country they take lèse-majesté very seriously.
Elizabeth II is queen over 16 realms across the globe. She regularly endures lèse-majesté from her 135 million unruly subjects. But Liz is a good sport and nobody gets sent to the Tower. In Thailand though they have laws for this sort of thing. There, unruly types bold enough to criticise the monarchy end up in prison.
The august personage you are not allowed to knock is Phrabat Somdej Phra Chao Yu Hua (His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej). Since the only Thai I am familiar with is written on menus it is hardly surprising that I find His Majesty’s title in his own language suggests something delicious and possibly spicy.
I’m not sure if mentioning curry and His Majesty in the same sentence counts as lèse-majesté but this I do know: Last December, a Mr Joe Gordon, an American citizen, was banged up for two and half years by a Bangkok court for this very offence. He was found guilty of translating an English-language book on His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej into Thai. The book, not being sufficiently reverential towards His Majesty, is banned in Thailand. In other words, Joe was done for aiding and abetting lèse-majesté that was perpetrated by others.
My favourite lèse-majesté story concerns the Frenchman travelling on Thai Airways who refused to switch off his reading light when asked to do so by two Thai princesses. He was then said to have “criticised” the royal ladies. Upon his arrival in Bangkok he was jailed for two weeks, the cheeky scamp.
I’ve never been to Thailand. But should I decide to visit Phrabat Somdej Phra Chao Yu Hua’s most excellent kingdom I shall make sure to not import any books and I won’t say a word about curry. As for princesses, I always do what they tell me; just ask Liz.