Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles

The King Never Smiles: A Biography Of Thailand's Bhumibol AdulyadejThe King Never Smiles: A Biography Of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej by Paul M. Handley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d heard about this book for years, and as someone who had lived in Thailand was very curious about it. While I’m sure that Handley won’t be welcome back to the kingdom any time soon for telling the story of the King as he has, I found the book very worthwhile. He rendered clear a great many things that had baffled me while in country–in my experience, many people were willing to touch on things like scandals in the royal family, but did not dwell on them at all. I’ve got a much better sense of Thailand and it’s politics after reading the book; they are every bit as intricate, challenging as say French politics in the fourth republic, and studying them could be just as rewarding. Many people quibble about the unending lists of long Thai names, but that shouldn’t matter–make a list of names and short descriptions so that you can refer to it later.

The book itself made an interesting companion read to the other book I’ve reviewed today, The Cleanest Race, BR Myers’ work on North Korean political culture. Myers isn’t as nuanced as Handley, largely because the body of work he was working from (North Korean political propaganda) isn’t nearly as variegated as Handley’s sources. And that says a lot about Thailand in the past 50 years; some people argue that the palace is a uniformly pernicious influence on Thailand (and I do not think that Handley is among them), but it is still a great deal freer than many countries in the world.

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