Nov 25 2012
Doubling as Father’s Day, the birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (aka Rama IX) on December 5 is one of Thailand’s most important holidays. Although celebrated throughout the kingdom, festivities are centered around Bangkok‘s Ratchadamnoen Road from Democracy Monument to the Grand Palace. Being among the throngs of Thai people as they honour the King is an enchanting experience — and it’s a chance to see the Grand Palace for free.
Although King Bhumibol’s health has been touch-and-go over the past several years (he still indefinitely resides at Siriraj Hospital), his public appearances have increased in recent months and he’s looking healthier than he has in a while. King Bhumibol will be turning 85 years old after 66 years on the throne, the longest reign of any living monarch in the world.
Far more than a ceremonial figurehead, the Thai king is revered by many as a bodhisatta (fully enlightened buddha in a future life) or even a semi-divine being who possesses potent spiritual and moral authority. Despite his silence during Thailand’s last major political upheaval in 2010, many feel the mild-mannered king has been a unifying presence throughout his reign. All visitors to Thailand should be aware of the deep level of devotion many Thais feel for their king — to the point that insulting him could leave you with a black eye, if you’re lucky, or in jail if you’re not.
This devotion comes to life on December 5 when thousands flock to Ratchadamnoen Road (see map), its usual snarling traffic replaced by a twinkling, carnival-like atmosphere. Plan ahead if you need to get to the airport from nearby Khao San Road on the evening of December 5 as this major eight-lane thoroughfare is closed to all traffic save a handful of public buses and even the side streets will be clogged.
The king also has a birthday tradition of opening the grounds of his Grand Palace to all people for free between 19:00 and midnight. A range of ceremonies take place throughout the day and into the evening at prominent Bangkok temples like Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho and Wat Saket, and cultural performances are held at Sanam Luang near the Palace. Note that ceremonies at Wat Phra Kaew are closed to the public before 19:00 on December 5, as is the entire Grand Palace complex.
This is an easy festival to get to if you’re staying in the backpacker district around Khao San, but a difficult one if coming from elsewhere in the city. Be sure to depart before the sun goes down if coming by taxi or express boat and expect to huff it a good three kilometres from National Stadium BTS station if making your way here after dark, as traffic in the direction of Ratchadamnoen will be at a standstill. The celebrations take place all day long, although it’s most lively in the evening.
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