International Herald Tribune, December 26, 2002
For Dogged Devotion to Etiquette, a Kingly Tribute
By SETH MYDANS
BANGKOK — She is a paragon of traditional Thai virtues — polite, grateful, obedient, loyal and deferential. When her master is near, she guards him. When he is away too long, she pines for him.
She is Tongdaeng, a stray dog adopted four years ago by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and she is the subject of an affectionate biography he has just written that sold out within hours of publication last month.
The slim, glossy book is filled with photographs he has taken of her, as well as intimate portraits of the king and his pet.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand frolicked with his pet dog, Tongdaeng, in Bangkok early this year. The king's book about the dog is wildly popular, and last month Thais were lining up to buy copies.
The book also has a sharper edge. It is a parable with clear messages to those who may need to hear them during a time of change and uncertainty in Thai culture and society.
Throughout the 84 pages of the book, which is written in the third person in both Thai and English, just the following passage appears in bold-face type. In her abiding respect for another stray who was her wet nurse, Tongdaeng is, the king writes, "different from many others who, after having become an important personality, might treat with contempt someone of lower status who, in fact, should be the subject of gratitude."
In the very next paragraph, he stresses the equal importance of deference toward those of higher status.
"Tongdaeng is a respectful dog with proper manners; she is humble and knows protocol," the king writes. "She would always sit lower than the king; even when he pulls her up to embrace her, Tongdaeng would lower herself down on the floor, her ears in a respectful drooping position, as if she would say, 'I don't dare.'"
"A common dog who is uncommon," he calls her in the opening sentence of the book, "The Story of Tongdaeng," which had a first printing of 100,000 copies. What is uncommon seems to be her unquestioning embrace of social norms that bring order and stability.
During his 56 years on the throne, the king, who is 75 years old, has been the steady core of a nation that in the past was shaken by repeated coups and that today is struggling to find its footing in a more aggressive, fast-paced, modern world.
The overwhelming popularity of the book, not to speak of a limited line of Tongdaeng T-shirts and polo shirts, is one sign of a passionate, even hungry reverence for a king who is known here as "the soul of the nation."
This week, local newspapers reported, people in 76 provinces signed a petition demanding that the
The publisher said the first printing of 100,000 copies was all but sold out in a few hours. The book by the 75-year-old sovereign has heartfelt praise for the dog's seemingly innate sense of propriety and regard for royalty.
The parable of Tongdaeng begins in 1998, when the king adopted her from the litter of a stray dog that had been taken in by a medical center he had recently dedicated. They bonded immediately.
When she was taken from her mother and brought to the palace, he writes, "she cried all the way," no matter how much the retainers struggled to calm her.
"Strangely enough, once she had been presented to His Majesty, she stopped crying, and crawled to nestle on his lap, as if entrusting her life to his care, and fell fast asleep, free from all worries, loneliness and fear."
She grew to be a handsome dog (her name means "copper," for her color), and the king takes this opportunity to touch on an issue he has often raised — national pride and self-reliance. Appreciation of Thai dogs, he writes, would "reduce the import of expensive 'luxury pets' which take a toll on the economy of the country."
Like an ideal subject, the king's favorite dog is obedient and sensitive to his subtlest moods.
"Whatever the king tells Tongdaeng, even very softly, she would understand and do accordingly," he writes.
She remains at his feet when he has guests and, "if the guest stays a long time, she would look at his majesty and then at the guest, and let out a long sigh, but never leave his side."
Clearly, the king returns his pet's affection. Like cherished family stories, he tells of her agility in peeling a coconut, her seemingly telepathic relationship with her offspring and her pouting reaction when her master gave another dog a taste of persimmon, her favorite fruit.
The book even reproduces an X-ray of Tongdaeng, made for fun when she accompanied him to a doctor's office.
The last page is titled "Notes" and reports that the king has conferred titles of honor on the mother of Tongdaeng and on the mother of another favorite dog, named Tonglarng.
Its final sentence adds one more thought for readers to consider.
"When there are people who approach the location where the king is resting," it says, "Tonglarng will bark at them until they are gone."