The Queen savours Thailand's taste for royalty

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At last the Queen can put domestic troubles aside and enjoy her visit to a country where the monarchy enjoys unqualified respect and Britain retains some of its former prestige.

Yesterday she viewed a centuries-old Royal Barge Procession and visited the ancient capital of Ayudhya. Thousands of Thais waved Union Jacks when the monarch arrived at the British Council and visited a university. The Queen then retired to the banks of the Chao Phaya River to watch a final dress rehearsal of the colourful Royal Barge Procession, in which about 2,000 chanting oarsmen dressed in traditional costumes and manning 52 barges performed the ceremony.

While the Queen attended to ceremonial functions Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, met Amnuey Virawan, the Thai Foreign Minister, to discuss British prisoners who are in jail for drug offences. Prisoners Abroad, a British group that works for the repatriation of Britons serving time in foreign prisons, wants the Queen to raise the topic.

From the moment the Queen's plane touched down at Bangkok's Don Muang airport on Monday and young girls scattered rose and jasmine petals at the feet of the British and Thai royal families, it was clear that her visit to Thailand was being given the full works of pomp and ceremony.

James Hodge, the new British Ambassador to Thailand, says he has been struck by the tremendous warmth of the relationship between Thailand and Britain. This is no exaggeration when speaking of a country whose citizens are buying British cars in increasing numbers and who are warming to the delights of Marks & Spencer and Body Shop. However the strongest tie between Britons and Thais is that between the two royal families. At a state banquet, the Queen addressed King Bhumibol Adulyadej as "Sir, my brother" and reminded her audience of the affectionate postal friendship of Queen Victoria and Rama IV, Thailand's great modernising monarch.

That relationship started when Britain stole the march on the other European powers by gaining an audience at the Siamese court in 1855. When Sir John Bowring arrived there he observed Thai noblemen clad mainly in orange paint crawling on all fours towards the king. He managed to persuade the courtiers that he was not obliged to crawl or give up his sword.

The world's longest-serving monarch still plays a pivotal position in Thai society. Courtiers still crawl, albeit elegantly, towards the King and Queen. His pronouncements on everything from democracy to traffic congestion are taken as commands rather than suggestions.

Just how much respect the royal family enjoys in Thailand was highlighted when the Queen attended a ceremony to be presented with the keys to Bangkok. As soon as she rose to speak members of the Thai court jumped to their feet, causing the British royal entourage to rather sheepishly follow their example.