BANGKOK — Every morning at her market stall in the Bangkok Noi district of the Thai capital, Jintana Rapsomruay rolls balls of dough into a snack known for its resemblance to the eggs of an oversized lizard. The sweet treat, which looks like a donut hole, was said to have been invented by a consort of the first king of the Chakri dynasty, who still reigns 240 years later.
The 18th-century monarch liked to gnaw on water monitor lizard eggs, the story goes, but the concubine couldn’t get her hands on any, so she substituted sweet bean paste-filled dough. The king – whose achievements included moving the Thai capital to its current location – was delighted.
The snack remains popular to this day, but Ms. Jintana can barely cope with it. Like millions of Thais struggling with the coronavirus pandemic, their income has plummeted by half.
That’s why Ms Jintana, 60, says she’s confused and angered by all the time and attention being devoted to the debate in Thailand over whether the capital should be known internationally as “Bangkok,” after the ancient riverside settlement, in she was in life or “Krung Thep Maha Nakhon”.
“If I were the government, I would take care of my people first and fix the economy instead of making a fuss about a name for political reasons,” she said. “There are more important things to do”
The official name of the capital of Thailand consists of 168 letters and is so long that it has been included in the Guinness World Records: Krung Thep Maha Nakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Nopparat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit.
It should be noted that none of these 168 Thai letters contain “Bangkok”.
The full nickname means City of Angels, Great City of Immortals, Magnificent City of Nine Jewels (and so on and so on). It comes from the sacred languages Pali and Sanskrit used in Buddhist and Hindu texts.
In February, the office of the Royal Society, the official guardian of the Thai language, issued a decision that seemed to reinforce its position that the capital should be known widely as Krung Thep Maha Nakhon rather than Bangkok.
The Royal Society’s decision was subtle, changing the official name for international purposes to ‘Krung Thep Maha Nakhon (Bangkok)’ rather than ‘Krung Thep Maha Nakhon; Bangkok.”
“By using the brackets, this punctuation mark emphasizes the importance of the name before the brackets,” said Santi Phakidkham, deputy secretary-general of the Bureau of the Royal Society.
Thailand’s cabinet — led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, a former military chief and leader of the 2014 coup — endorsed the Royal Society’s decision in a decree of its own, making a bracketed Bangkok the country’s law.
The switch from semicolons to brackets has caused public dissatisfaction. But it’s not the name itself that anyone really objects to; The capital is commonly known to Thai speakers as Krung Thep or by the initials “Kor Tor Mor”.
Rather, the way an elite clique carried out the update disturbed some in a populace that seems increasingly unwilling to accept dictates from royalist, tradition-bound institutions.
“The deployment of Krung Thep over Bangkok is insane to the point of idiocy,” said Charnvit Kasetsiri, a Thai historian and former rector of Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “The upper-class Thais love to do that sort of thing, change common names, real Thai names, into these fancy, part Pali, part Sanskrit, jumbled up names.”
Mr Charnvit noted that other Thai city names have been corrupted over the years, causing confusion among locals who continue to refer to their hometowns using the older names. For example, Korat is officially known as Nakhon Ratchasima. On road signs, the more common form is sometimes appended in parentheses.
The government’s push to use what it considers a more lofty name for the capital comes amid sweeping efforts to update international nomenclature, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s campaign to change Turkey to Türkiye and the push to make Ukraine’s capital to refer to it as Kyiv rather than Russian Kyiv, an amendment recently approved by the New York Times.
It also comes amid a global movement addressing the legacy of colonialism, including place names.
But Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized, and the Bangkok name is not a relic of the empire.
At a time when so many in Thailand are suffering the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, some Thais are wondering whether an official policy from Krung Thep Maha Nakhon (Bangkok) is really one of the government’s most pressing issues.
“I don’t want to say more about the big name because I don’t have good connections,” Ms. Jintana said, her fingers rolling dough. “But what I do know is that all these people don’t even see salespeople like me as people.”
While a mass protest movement has stalled, dissatisfaction with Mr Prayut’s government simmers. Some critics of the coup that brought him to power fled overseas and were found dead. Dozens of young protest leaders have been arrested.
Prosecutions for royal defamation have risen sharply, with a former official being sentenced to more than four decades in prison last year. Some protest leaders have urged the monarchy to submit to the constitution and now face hundreds of years in total in prison for lese majeste, which criminalizes criticism of senior members of the royal family.
“People across Thailand, not just the young, recognize the argument of reforming the monarchy,” said Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, who was elected president of the students’ association at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “It’s not secondary, it’s mainstream.”
Mr Netiwit lost his job in February after school administrators found he was linked to an event involving activists calling for monarchical reform.
Some Thais are more enthusiastic about the government’s push for the longer name.
On a recent morning, Vichian Bunthawi, 88, a retired palace guard, sat cross-legged on a bench at Bangkok’s sleepy Noi train station. The capital should be known around the world as Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, he said, recalling his primary school teacher writing the full name on the blackboard.
“Krung Thep Maha Nakhon is the name of the capital,” he said. “This is where the king lives.”
The first king of the Chakri dynasty, Rama I, moved the capital in 1782 from the left bank of the Chao Phraya River, where the Bangkok Noi district is located, to the east bank. On swampy ground he and his successors built gilded, jeweled palaces. Krung Thep Maha Nakhon’s full name contains a paean to “a vast royal palace resembling the heavenly abode where the reincarnated God reigns”. In Thai tradition, the king is semi-divine.
The absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932, but the royal family still has a tremendous presence in Thai life. Huge posters of King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun and Queen Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya, the current king’s fourth wife, tower over public spaces.
The king, whose lavish lifestyle contrasts with the austerity measures imposed on many Thais by the pandemic, spends most of his time in Germany.
Whether as Krung Thep Maha Nakhon or Bangkok, the character of the capital has changed significantly over the decades. City planners filled the canals that were once the city’s thoroughfares. Rice fields gave way to malls and condominiums.
In a back alley behind a Buddhist temple in Bangkok Noi, Chana Ratsami still plays a Thai xylophone. His wife’s palace servant family lived in Bangkok Noi for generations.
Now, he said, the alley’s residents are mostly inland migrants.
“You don’t know the history of this place,” he said, describing how the busy street at the end of the alley used to be a canal with boats passing by, full of flowers and fruit. “I miss the old town, no matter what it’s called.”
Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/02/world/asia/bangkok-thailand-krung-thep.html (Bangkok): A boost for Staples Miffs Thais (who have bigger problems)