Seen on a soft spring night, the luminous spires of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha seem to float over Bangkok scarcely touched by the blare of traffic, the neon slashes of bars and the ragged hurly-burly of mainland Southeast Asia's largest city. So too does the Kingdom of Thailand, proud heir to virtually seven centuries of uninterrupted independence, seem to soar above the roiling troubles of the region all around it. Neighboring Laos is half in Communist hands, Cambodia hapless host to the Viet Cong, Burma a xenophobic military backwater. The Chinese talons are less than 100 miles away, North Viet Nam a bare 20 minutes as the U.S. fighter-bombers fly from their Thai bases. Everywhere on the great peninsula, militant Communism, poverty, misery, illiteracy, misrule, and a foundering sense of nationhood are the grim order of the Asian day.
With one important exception: the lush and smiling realm of Their Majesties King Bhumibol (pronounced Poom-ee-pone) Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit, which spreads like a green meadow of stability, serenity and strength from Burma down to the Malaysian peninsulathe geopolitical heart of Southeast Asia. Once fabled Siam, rich in rice, elephants, teak and legend, Thailand (literally, Land of the Free) today crackles with a prosperity, a pride of purpose, and a commitment to the fight for freedom that is Peking's despair and Washington's delight. The meadow inevitably has its dark corners, notably the less fecund northeast, where Red insurgency is struggling for a foothold. But the military oligarchy that rules Thailand in the King's name is confident the Communists will not succeed. So is the U.S. For Thailand is that rarity in the postwar world: a nation avowedly antiCommunist, unashamedly willing to go partners with the U.S. in attacking its problemsand its enemies.
The Man from U.N.C.LE. But it is Thailand's endowments that first attack the senses, opulent gifts of nature nurtured by a benign history. In the gentle air and lemony Siamese sunlight, rice, corn and coconut palms flourish, as do 28 kinds of bananas and 750 varieties of orchids. In the north, worker-elephants still pull the great teak logs from the forest with an efficiency no machine yet invented can match; mangoes, sugar and rubber plants thrive in the south. Along the great, glittering emerald rice fields of the fertile, canal-veined central plain where over a third of the 30 million Thais live, smiling, polygamous peasants lounge in boxy teakwood houses on stilts. Tethered beneath is a sinewy water buffalo, and tied atop is a television antenna, ready for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. clubbed in Thai.
Hard-top highways, built with U.S. aid and thick with speeding new cars and gaily painted trucks, reach out into the countryside to draw off the surfeit of Thailand's bounty for world markets. Trains of wooden barges riding low in Bangkok's muddy Chao Phraya River carry rice, corn, copra, reams of incomparable Thai silk, juteand illicit opiumto export. With the Thai annual growth rate of 7% a year, the baht (formerly called the tical and still worth a nickel), backed by gold and foreign-exchange reserves of nearly $650 million, is one of Asia's hardest currencies. The men who administer the Thai economy, and indeed the whole cadre of Thai civil service, are among the most competent