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Day 150 – Don’t Come Knockin’ When The Green Lantern’s Rockin’ (Or The Benefits of Monarchy)

July 31, 2010

Dateline: Hua Hin, Thailand – Saturday, July 31, 2010

I now know why countries still have monarchies. I know why subjects don’t mass at the gates to take their royals off to the guillotine. I know why a king or a queen is a handy thing to have around.

As an American, the idea that a modern country would perpetuate a monarchy seems like a sham. What do royals bring to the table anyway? They seem like man nipples or armpit hair—useful in the past perhaps, but now mostly around because we don’t know what it’d look like without them.

Take the Queen of England, for example. She is independently wealthy by inheritance. How much she has is up for debate, but it’s clear that her family put most of her wealth into the Crown Estate, a sort of trust that holds the property in her name. The Crown Estate reports to parliament. It uses the profits from the assets to make Civil List distributions–payments given to various royals for upkeep, maintenance, and expenses associated with royal duties. From what I can tell, the Queen isn’t costing the country much moneywise.

That doesn’t, however, answer the question of why the English even bother. Basically, the English have setup a bureaucracy to run the royal family’s finances. In exchange, the royal family members get to jet around the world and represent the country just because they were born. The fact that this doesn’t even pay lip service to meritocracy is appalling. In America, we at least have the decency to wait until our heirs of fortune release a sex tape before we elevate them to useless royalty.

All that was before I visited King Rama VI’s summer palace here in Thailand. Known as Marukhathaiyawan Palace (the “love and hope” palace) the two-story wooden pavilion sits on a private beach between Cha-am and Hua Hin. Built in 1923, the king was only able to enjoy it for one year. He died in 1925 at the age of 44.

The palace is the ultimate beach house. The structure is made of teakwood elevated on stilts, essentially a highbrow version of a traditional Thai bamboo stilt house. You can wander the shaded, open-air walkways underneath the stilts or you can head upstairs to the living quarters and hosting areas located on the second floor. To explore the living area you must toss your shoes into a provided shoulder bag. This is a good thing. Barefoot, you get to feel the cool, dark wood floors. Besides, shoes are a sign of oppression—you wear them not because they’re comfortable but because a harsh environment or your job (same thing?) requires it. If you can walk around shoeless, it’s a sign you’re in a relaxed, safe place.

That’s what this beach house was for. The king came here to get away from the busy city. Here he could write, watch a play in the open-air theater, or eat a meal from either his Western or Thai chefs. Much of the living area was exclusively for him, his wives and their attendants. The design is airy with all the rooms open to the outside. The warm colored exterior walls contrast nicely with the breezy, dark interiors of the rooms. The landscaping is lush and green and makes the red roof of the palace especially striking. The ocean quietly laps the shore. There’s no surfing here because of a manmade bay. The designers commandeered the ocean to be the king’s swimming pool.

The palace’s best feature is the Bathing Pavilion, a long, covered walkway extending from the main house to the beach. Stairs descend from the second floor directly onto the sand. Imagine that for a second–walking from smooth, cool, wood floors straight onto warm sand. It’s like therapy for your toes.

At first glance it looks like the ocean end of the Bathing Pavilion is topped with a Christian cross. Turns out this isn’t a religious symbol. It’s a signaling device for the royal guests and staff. For example, when the king was getting ready for dinner, the staff would hang a yellow lantern on the cross to signal the dinner participants to get ready. If the king was engaged in a royal function, they hung a green lantern to tell staff and guests they should not approach the house.

Sure, the place could use a flat screen, Internet, and an air conditioner or two (personally, I’d also lose all but one of the wives—concubines are more my thing, I think), but I have to say, it was the nicest beach house I’d ever been in.

And that’s the thing. When am I ever going to be in a nicer beach house? You think Johnny Depp’s going to invite me to his Bahaman island oasis? Is Tiger Woods going to let me drop in on his beach estate between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. for 30 baht? Nope and nope. I have a better chance of waking up tomorrow morning and pooping fist-sized diamonds.

It turns out, then, that a monarchy gives us commoners a peek into other worlds. The first of those is the world of the wealthy. Unlike self-made gazillionaires, royals are tied to the state and therefore have an obligation to their subjects. They build palaces and monuments, but most of the time they give the public some access to their estates (at least the ones they aren’t using). Can’t say the same for Richard Branson and his private island digs (at least not for less than 25K a week)

The second world is the world of history. Royals also are also a window into a country’s past. Ideally, when they build buildings the royals are expressing something unique to the country. In that way, royalty can preserve and even enhance their nations by creating historical artifacts for future generations. Many of the famous cathedrals, monuments, and historical buildings that we romanticize were created by benevolent (or not so benevolent) institutions that took some unwilling funding from the public. We might then think of royal families as a way to provide public patronage for history. As a bonus, royal families have at least the nominal duty to be benevolent.

In fact, a royal family can be the human embodiment of a country’s history. Not only do they preserve history in the buildings they create and the art they preserve, they also express a country’s history through their lineage. You can look at a royal palace and be transported back to an earlier era. The experience gives you a sense of time. In the same way, you can see a royal and know that the family has represented your country for centuries. The artifacts, both material and human, give a subject a feeling that the country’s been around for a while and probably won’t be going anywhere. I imagine it’s what it would feel like to meet the great great great great (great?) grandchildren of George Washington—with the royals though, instead of remaining anonymous, their family has been a prominent part of the country’s history for generations. This person embodies an older time, yet still exists in the present.

There’s one final upside to monarchies—they provide a highbrow distraction. The tuxedo-and-champagne-at-the-opera-after-party crowd can guiltlessly engage in celebrity watching without stooping to a Kardashian level.

In the end, I can see the appeal of keeping royalty around. Besides, if they were really that bad, I’m sure the population would rise up, disband the family, and divvy up the assets. It hasn’t happened here yet, so royals must serve some function.

That said, I’ve no desire for a royal family in the U.S. Ascendancy by legacy doesn’t fit our culture. Besides, if we had a royal family, what history would they embody? The 1960s?

Of course, if you’d like to nominate me for the job, I’ll take it. I’ve got decent taste in architecture, I don’t mind a little pomp and circumstance, and I promise to make a sincere, on-camera apology whenever I’m photographed in my Hitler costume. I might even be persuaded to participate in a reality TV show. Oh, and you’ll always be welcome at my beach house. Just make sure you observe the green lantern.

GALLERY: Click through to further explore King Rama VI’s Marukhathaiyawan Palace including photos not included in the entry above.

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