In two courts of the King of ThailandWith my second son Kai (second of six), I had a meeting in Bangkok in the early 1980s with a Professor Pavan at the city’s Agricultural University. Towards the end of the meeting, the Professor said that if I wanted to see what Thailand was doing to assist its northern tribes to switch from growing opium to a more acceptable crop, he would be in Chiang Mai in the North West that weekend and he could show us round his research centre.
It was already dark (about 6pm) when we were dropped off at a collection of huts in the woods and gave our Professor the shock of his life as we suddenly appeared through the door of his office.
We were still toasting each other with beer when a vehicle drew up and a tall Thai gentleman stepped in. The Professor jumped up to greet him, then introduced him as Prince Bisathet, cousin of the King of Thailand.
Prince Bisathet spoke excellent English, as he had been educated at Trinity College, Cambridge.
By the end of the evening, the Prince said: ‘In the North West hills we are operating The King’s Project to wean the tribes away from growing the opium poppy. He makes an annual visit to encourage everyone concerned. He is here this weekend. You could join our party tomorrow and visit the project with him’. That was an offer we couldn’t refuse.
Prince Bisathet himself drove us back to our hotel and said we would be picked up at 7am the next morning. ‘Don’t eat breakfast’, he said. ‘There will be plenty of food at Phuping Palace’.
Next morning a younger cousin of the King arrived at our hotel, at the wheel of a 4-wheel-drive jeep, to collect us and whiz us round a few hairpin bends to the Royal Family’s Winter Palace.
The gardens were beautifully manicured. Their speciality was the rose beds, which are exotic strangers in the East. They looked as beautiful as in England but had no scent.
There was an extravagant buffet breakfast in one of the halls and we ate in the company of people such as the Governor of the Province, the Mayor of the city and several military generals.
Then we were invited to travel once again with Prince Bisathet in a convoy of 4-wheel drive vehicles. A car loaded with armed soldiers went out of the palace gates first. King Bhumipol was in the second car with Queen Sirikit and their eldest daughter, Princess Siringthorn.
Our car was fourth in a very long convoy. During the day we drove for several hours, always in the same formation, stopping every now and again to inspect aspects of the King’s Project. The whole way, mile after mile, the road was lined with soldiers with loaded rifles at the ready. They stood every 100 yards or so, always within sight of each other but with their backs turned to the road. They didn’t take their eyes off the surrounding forests and fields and not one looked to see the royal convoy pass by.
The first stop was at a small clearing in the forest. The King and his immediate entourage walked in, accompanied by guards, and the rest of us followed and stood around in the background. Prince Bisathet left us for a while and when he returned he said: ‘King Bhumipol would like to be introduced to you’. Kai and I followed the Prince and we were led on to a narrow earthen dam where the King was standing. He was wearing black-rimmed glasses, a blue blazer with white trimming and he had blue sneakers on his feet. He looked like someone who had strolled over to watch a regatta.
The King of Thailand is revered as divine by 60 million people. On the trip his foremost generals and politicians only approached him or stood by him with their knees slightly bent so that their heads would never be higher than his. The Prince led us up to the King and said formally: ‘This is Sydney Paulden, a journalist from England, with his son Kai’.
King Bhumipol stepped towards us and held out his hand. He said: ‘I heard that there were English gentlemen with us today and I thought that unless we were formally introduced, you might not wish to speak to me’.
I’ll never forget the twinkle in his eye as he said those words and shook my hand.
I learned later that he had been educated for some time in Australia. He could obviously resort to the easy ways of Australians, even to the point of taking the mickey out of the English.
The King himself then explained how part of his project in that region was to provide irrigation so that a variety of cash crops could be grown by the local communities, removing them from the influence of the drug dealers, who would otherwise be their only source of revenue.
At another stop later in the day, Queen Sirikit, a truly beautiful woman with a smile that captivated us immediately, walked up with a handful of strawberries that she offered to Kai and to me. She asked if we thought they would suit the taste of the British, as it was her hope that the King’s Project could result in large quantities of strawberries and other fruit being grown and exported to Europe in the winter, when they would bring in a good revenue for the tribal people.
At the end of the day, the Prince said that King Bhumipol had suggested that Kai and I might like to go further up country to see the work being done with some of the more remote tribes.
So the next day we were provided with a helicopter, a couple of agricultural specialists and some armed escorts and flown to the very North West corner of Thailand, in the Golden Triangle. On the way we saw the huge scars on the hillsides, where the removal of trees to plant opium poppies had allowed the high winds to erode the soil. We visited a Red Lahu tribal village and saw how they slit the poppies to gather the opium crop.
Eventually we were back in Bangkok, several days later than planned as we had not originally expected to go to Chiang Mai. We had been issued with a 15-day visa on arrival in Thailand, which had now expired. So we spent the next 24 hours in gaol, where we were fingerprinted. Then we had a ride in a police car to a magistrate’s court across town, which found us guilty of being in Thailand without a valid visa. We paid a fine and were expelled from the country. We had return tickets and were allowed to take the flight of our choice back to the UK.