Bangkok’s real name has 168 letters. Its new name will have five words (and brackets)

In February, the Office of the Royal Society, the official guardian of the Thai language, issued a decision that appeared to underscore its position that the capital should be known everywhere as Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, rather than Bangkok.

The Royal Society’s ruling was subtle, rendering the formal name for international purposes as “Krung Thep Maha Nakhon (Bangkok),” rather than what it had been: “Krung Thep Maha Nakhon; Bangkok.”

“By using the parentheses, this punctuation mark emphasises the importance of the name in front of the parentheses,” said Santi Phakidkham, the deputy secretary-general of the Office of the Royal Society.

Jintana Rapsomruay washes dishes at a stall where she makes a popular dessert in Bangkok. “If I were the government, I would first take care of my people and fix the economy instead of making a fuss over a name for political reasons.”

Jintana Rapsomruay washes dishes at a stall where she makes a popular dessert in Bangkok. “If I were the government, I would first take care of my people and fix the economy instead of making a fuss over a name for political reasons.”Credit:Adam Dean/The New York Times

The Thai Cabinet — headed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former military chief and leader of the 2014 coup — has approved the Royal Society’s ruling with its own decree, making a parenthetical Bangkok the law of the land.

The shift from semicolon to parentheses has provoked public dissatisfaction. But it’s not the name itself to which anyone really objects; the capital is universally known to Thai speakers as Krung Thep, or, by the initials “Kor Tor Mor.”

Rather, the way an elite clique did the update is what bothered some in a populace that appears increasingly unwilling to accept diktats from royalist, tradition-bound institutions.

“Using Krung Thep over Bangkok is crazy to the point of being idiotic,” said Charnvit Kasetsiri, a Thai historian and former rector of Thammasat University in Bangkok. “The upper-class Thais love to do this kind of thing, changing common names, real Thai names, into these fancy, partly Pali, partly Sanskrit, mixed-up names.”

Charnvit noted that other Thai city names have been gussied up over the years, leading to confusion among locals who continue to refer to their hometowns by the older names. Korat, for instance, is formally known as Nakhon Ratchasima. On road signs, the more common form is sometimes appended in brackets.

The government’s push to use what it considers a loftier name for the capital comes amid broader efforts to update international nomenclature, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s campaign to change Turkey to Türkiye and a push to refer to the capital of Ukraine as Kyiv rather than the Russian Kiev, a change many media organisations have recently adopted.

It also comes amid a global movement to address the legacy of colonialism, including in place names.

But Thailand is the one country in South-east Asia never to have been colonised, and the name Bangkok is not a relic of empire.

At a time when so many in Thailand are suffering from the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, some Thais are wondering whether an official policy of Krung Thep Maha Nakhon (Bangkok) is really among the most pressing issues for the government.

“I don’t want to say more about the capital name because I don’t have good connections,” Jintana said, her fingers rolling dough. “But what I know is that all these people, they don’t even see vendors like me as human.”

While a mass protest movement has stalled, discontent with Prayuth’s government simmers. Some critics of the coup that brought him to power fled overseas and turned up dead. Dozens of young protest leaders have been imprisoned.

Prosecutions of royal defamation have increased sharply, with a former civil servant sentenced last year to more than four decades in prison. Some protest leaders have called for the monarchy to submit to the constitution and are now facing, collectively, hundreds of years in prison for lèse-majesté, which criminalises criticism of senior members of the royal family.

“People across Thailand, not just the young, recognise the argument of reforming the monarchy,” said Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, who was elected president of the Student Union at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “It’s not marginal, it’s mainstream.”

Netiwit lost his position in February after the school administration determined that he was connected to an event involving activists who have called for monarchical reform.

Some Thais are more enthusiastic about the government espousing the longer name.

On a recent morning, Vichian Bunthawi, 88, a retired palace guard, sat cross-legged on a bench at the sleepy railway station in Bangkok Noi. The capital should be known around the world as Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, he said, remembering how his primary schoolteacher would write the full name on the chalkboard.

“Krung Thep Maha Nakhon is the name of the capital,” he said. “It 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, to the east bank. On marshy ground, he and his successors built gilded, jewelled palaces. The full name of Krung Thep Maha Nakhon includes a paean to “an enormous royal palace resembling the heavenly abode in which the reincarnated god reigns.” In Thai tradition, the king is semi-divine.

In 1932, absolute monarchy was abolished, but the royal family still retains an enormous presence in Thai life. Giant posters of King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun and Queen Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya, the current king’s fourth wife, tower over public places.

The king, whose lavish lifestyle contrasts with the austerity forced upon 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 drastically over the decades. City planners filled in the canals that used to be the city’s transportation arteries. Rice paddies 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 family of palace attendants lived in Bangkok Noi for generations.

Now, he said, the lane’s residents are mostly migrants from upcountry.

“They don’t know the history of this place,” he said, describing how the traffic-choked road at the end of the lane used to be a canal with boats floating past, filled with flowers and fruit. “I miss the old city, no matter what it’s called.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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