BANGKOK -- As a local guide leads a group of European tourists out of a packed Wat Phra Kaew, or Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the ornate holiest of holy places in Thai Buddhism, she gestures toward a nearby belfry. "It is only rung for two reasons, to announce a new king or a new head of the Buddhist clergy," she says as the visitors turn their cameras and smart phones toward the towering, floral mosaic structure topped by a still, silent pale green bell with gold borders. The last time it rang was "before I started working here," she adds with a giggle, referring to 1989, when a new supreme patriarch in this predominantly Theravadha Buddhist country was named.
Traditional ritual is no laughing matter in Thailand. A steady dose of worrying news keeps the public on edge about the two most important institutions -- the monarchy and the monkhood -- that have played a role in shaping Thai identity. Since Feb. 18, palace officials have taken the extraordinary step of keeping open the blue wooden doors of a stately, modern building near the entrance of the sprawling Grand Palace complex in historic Bangkok, where the sacred temple also sits, for the public to sign a book expressing wishes for good health to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the frail and elderly monarch.