Working in Thailand you quickly learn to expect the unexpected. Even if you try to keep up with the myriad of holidays, Buddhist special events, and other surprising disruptions to the workday you will still miss something. Thus, I wasn’t too shocked to find my school completely deserted upon arriving to teach my first lesson at 8:45 last Monday morning. We’d had a day off on Friday for HRH the Queen’s Birthday so my initial thought was that the school was taking an extra day off. However, I knew that at least Satree Phuket School was in session as I could hear their loudspeakers from my apartment.
Then I heard the music. Just to the east of my school is a large empty field, somewhat optimistically titled “Saphan Chai Sports Stadium” on Google Maps; this is where the Phuket Town Municipality held their Chinese New Year’s celebration a few months ago. It sounded like there was at least one marching band playing in the field so I walked over there to see what was going on. What I found was a whole lot of uniforms — a great number of Police, Army, and Navy personnel were all in formation wearing snappy dress uniforms; there were formations of teachers in their finest quasi-military garb as well as students wearing the same. I spotted a few kids from my school — just boys, way at the back, looking rather ratty in their threadbare Boy Scout uniforms. It is, after all, a school of poor orphans but at least somebody could have made an effort to dress them nicer if there was to be a fancy event.
I then noticed a large statue sitting in the bed of a truck surrounded by flowers. It was obviously one of Thailand’s earlier kings although I couldn’t identify him at the time. Some of the students were also carrying framed portraits of the same king. I figured it must have been the birthday of this particular king although I didn’t recall any that fell on 15 August. Science Day and Youth Day — a bit later in the month — both celebrate the accomplishments of several kings but they wouldn’t separate them out for this. I later found out the procession was to honor King Vajiravudh whom we know in the West as Rama IV. His birthday is in January and he passed away in November and none of his main accomplishments occur in August. Well, it turns out that Thesaban Phluk Panya School (on Satun Road near the Phuket Island Pavilion Hotel) is, like some of the other schools around town, under Royal Patronage. Each of these schools is “assigned” a different king as their “patron”. And it turns out that Princess Bejaratana Rajasuda, the aunt of HRH Bhumipol Adulyadej (King Rama XI) who had passed away two weeks before, was King Vajiravudh’s only child. In fact, the king had died just one day after the birth of his daughter. The day’s events on Monday were to mark the dedication of a pair of statues honoring father and daughter at Phluk Panya School.
As I began taking photographs (having learned to always have a camera handy wherever I go in Thailand), the assemblage began marching out of the field’s enclosure, down the small lane leading to my school, and into the main road heading south. I thought I’d take a few pictures of the parade going down the hill and then return to school to await their return. But one of the Thai teachers from my school saw me and asked if I would march alongside him. He was dressed in a Boy Scout uniform — short pants and big safari hat — and I felt somewhat out-of-place in a forest-green shirt with bright yellow necktie. But march I did; it was a very long route through Phuket Town to Satun Road and the roadside along the entire distance was filled with mostly younger students waving Thai flags. It was a very festive atmosphere and the police and army had every crossroad blocked. They, too, were wearing their finest uniforms (complete with white gloves!). A number of news photographers and film crews also lined the route and always seemed surprised to see what was probably the only farang in the entire parade (me!).
We finally arrived at Thesaban Phluk Panya School which is just huge and modern. A crane was lifting the statue of King Vajiravudh onto a plinth and there were huge crowds of smartly-attired observers surrounding a courtyard (obviously the school’s playground). A number of monks were in an enclosure chanting. They chanted for three hours! I spent much of our time there (and we didn’t depart until after lunchtime) walking around taking photographs. At one point I practically ran right into Phuket Town’s mayor. I’ve talked with her on at least two previous occasions and she remembered me. I also managed to get “interviewed” for one of the Thai news programs. I still had no idea what the ceremony was about so I just responded, “I am pleased to be here on this auspicious occasion.” That seemed to satisfy them. At any rate, I do love attending these types of events — not only do I (eventually) learn something new but I feel participating helps to elevate my standing in the eyes of those whom I teach and work with. I certainly scored a lot of points with my new co-teachers on this day!
Towards noontime the chanting finally stopped, the Thai equivalent of a sixteen-gun salute (I didn’t count the number of shots fired) coincided — and drowned-out — with a singing of the Thai Royal Anthem, and a boxed-snack was served courtesy of Royal Thai Airways. Having obtained our cartons of orange juice and pastry, we piled into an old wooden songteaw for the ride back to school. We arrived just in time for me to teach three P5 lessons in a row. What a day!
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