BANGKOK — Every morning at her market stall in the Bangkok Noi district of the Thai capital, Jintana Rapsomruay rolls dough into a snack known for its resemblance to the eggs of an oversized lizard. The sweet treat, which looks like a donut hole, is 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 eat the eggs of water monitor lizards, or so the story goes, but the concubine couldn’t get a hold of any, so she replaced dough filled with sweet bean paste. The king – whose achievement was moving the Thai capital to its current location – was delighted.
The snack remains popular to this day, but Ms. Jintana can barely make ends meet. Like millions of Thais struggling during the coronavirus pandemic, her income has been cut in half.
That is why Ms. Jintana, 60, says she is stunned and angry at all the time and attention being paid to the debate in Thailand over whether the capital should be known internationally as ‘Bangkok’, after the ancient settlement. by the river where they live, or ‘Krung Thep Maha Nakhon’.
“If I were the government, I would take care of my people first and restore 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 is 168 letters, so long that it has been included in the Guinness World Records: Krung Thep Maha Nakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit.
It should be noted that none of those 168 Thai letters describe “Bangkok”.
The full name means City of Angels, Grand City of Immortals, Magnificent City of Nine Jewels (and so on). It is taken 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 underscore its position that the capital should be known everywhere as Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, rather than Bangkok.
The Royal Society’s statement 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 emphasizes the importance of the name to the parentheses,” said Santi Phakidkham, the deputy secretary-general of the Office of the Royal Society.
The Thai cabinet — led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former military leader and leader of the 2014 coup — approved the Royal Society’s ruling with a decree of its own, making Bangkok the law of the country, by the way.
The shift from semicolons to parentheses has caused public dismay. But it’s not the name itself that anyone really objects to; the capital is commonly known to Thai speakers as Krung Thep, or with the initials “Kor Tor Mor”.
Rather, the way an elite clique did the update is what bothered some in a population that seems increasingly unwilling to accept dictates from royalist, tradition-bound institutions.
“Using Krung Thep over Bangkok is so crazy it’s insane,” said Charnvit Kasetsiri, a Thai historian and former rector of Thammasat University in Bangkok. “The upper-class Thais like to do this kind of thing, change common names, real Thai names, into these beautiful, part Pali, part Sanskrit, mixed up names.”
Mr Charnvit noted that other Thai city names have cropped up over the years, leading to confusion among locals who continue to refer to their birthplace with the older names. Korat, for example, is formally known as Nakhon Ratchasima. On road signs, the most common form is sometimes added in parentheses.
The government’s push to use what it sees as a more lofty name for the capital comes amid wider efforts to update international nomenclature, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s campaign to turn Turkey into Türkiye and a push to name Ukraine’s capital Kiev instead of Russia’s Kiev, a change recently made by DailyExpertNews.
It also comes amid a global movement to address the legacy of colonialism, including in place names.
But Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been colonized, and the name Bangkok is not a remnant of an empire.
At a time when so many in Thailand are suffering the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, some Thais are questioning whether an official policy by Krung Thep Maha Nakhon (Bangkok) is really one of the most pressing issues for the government.
“I don’t want to say more about the capital’s name because I don’t have good connections,” Mrs. 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, discontent with Mr. Prayuth. Some critics of the coup that brought him to power fled abroad and were found dead. Dozens of young protest leaders have been jailed.
Prosecutions for royal defamation have risen sharply, with a former government official being sentenced to more than four decades in prison last year. Some protest leaders have called on the monarchy to submit to the constitution and are now jointly risking hundreds of years in prison for lese majesty, which criminalizes criticism of senior members of the royal family.
“People all over Thailand, not just the young, are recognizing the argument to reform 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.”
Mr Netiwit lost his position in February after the school board determined he was involved in an event involving activists who had called for monarchical reform.
Some Thais are more enthusiastic about the government that adheres to the longer name.
On a recent morning, Vichian Bunthawi, 88, a retired palace guard, sat cross-legged on a bench at the sleepy train station in Bangkok Noi. The capital should be known around the world as Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, he said, remembering how his teacher would write the full name on the board.
“Krung Thep Maha Nakhon is the name of the capital,” he said. “Here lives the king.”
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 palaces with jewels. Krung Thep Maha Nakhon’s full name includes a hymn to “an enormous royal palace resembling the celestial abode in which the reincarnated god reigns.” In Thai tradition, the king is semi-divine.
The absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932, but the royal family is still very much present in Thai life. Large 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 measures imposed on many Thais by the pandemic, spends most of his time in Germany.
Be it Krung Thep Maha Nakhon or Bangkok, the character of the capital has changed dramatically in recent decades. City planners filled the canals that used to be the city’s arteries. Rice fields gave way to shopping centers and apartment blocks.
Chana Ratsami still plays a Thai xylophone in an alley behind a Buddhist temple in Bangkok’s Noi. His wife’s family of palace servants lived in Bangkok Noi for generations.
Now, he said, the avenue’s residents are mainly migrants from the interior.
“They don’t know the history of this place,” he said, describing how the traffic-choked road at the end of the lane was a canal with passing boats, full of flowers and fruit. “I miss the old town, whatever it’s called.”
Muktita Suhartono reporting contributed.