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The Dog and I: the King’s stray

IT’S THE story of how a tramp became a lady – and won the heart of a monarch – and it’s set to be a runaway bestseller in Thailand. The much revered King of Thailand's favourite dog was elevated to superstar status last week as 100,000 people queued to buy the book of her life on the first day of its sale.

Named Tongdaeng (Copper), the former Bangkok stray bitch adopted as a pup by Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has caught the heart of a nation. Thais have been so taken with her, that a book on her life story catapulted to the top of the best-seller lists the instant it hit the shops last month, with sales expected to exceed a million copies in a country of 61 million.

Her rise from ragamuffin to royal favourite began one day in 1998 when she was carried through the gates of Chitralada Palace in Bangkok as a present for the King from a medical development centre which looked after strays and had heard that he loved dogs.

Although born in the slums of Bangkok, Tongdaeng is being hailed not merely as one of the best-mannered, considerate, respectful and grateful dogs in the world, but as an example to all Thais - particularly politicians - on how to behave. The King's adoring subjects have been buying the book not just for the pictures of one man and his dog, but for the sentiments on morality and manners contained in the text, written by the King himself.

King Bhumibol, a constitutional monarch who enjoys immense respect from his people, introduces Tongdeang as "a common dog who is uncommon". Among her characteristics is the ability to marshal other palace dogs and make them sit to attention in the presence of the King.

When chasing other dogs around trees she insists that the group always goes clockwise. For many readers this is interpreted as a call for national unity in the face of a parliament rent by arguments among MPs that often reduce the debating chamber to chaos.

The dog has the ability to pick and open coconuts at the King's seaside palace on the Gulf of Thailand, although this can take hours and often leads to torn gums as she chews through the bark. The message here is interpreted as advice to practice patience in adversity.

"Tongdeang shows gratitude and respect - as opposed to people who, after becoming important, might treat with contempt someone of lower status to whom they should be thankful," the King writes. The Thai people are more than familiar with politicians who, once elected to office, abandon all principles in pursuit of their own wealth and aggrandisement.

On the day in 1988 that Tongdaeng was presented to the King, she whimpered all the way to the palace.

"Although the person who brought her gave her some milk and cakes she did not stop crying, even when she was carried around to pacify her. Strangely enough, when she had been presented to His Majesty she stopped crying and crawled up to nestle on his lap as if to entrust her life to his care and fell fast asleep, free from all worries and care," the King writes (with a disconcerting habit of describing himself in the third person).

Tongdaeng has since given birth to a litter of nine pups whom, the King believes, she can call to her side by telepathy.

She also shows respect. In Thailand it is improper for a person's head to be higher than that of someone of greater status. Two hundred years ago it was a capital offence to rise above the head of the King of Thailand.

"Other dogs would show their delight when they met the King by jumping onto his lap.

Tongdaeng would never do that. She always stays lower than him. Even when he pulls her up to embrace her, Tongdeang will crouch on the floor, her ears down, in a respectful manner as if saying: 'I dare not. It's not proper'. To show respect she will lick the King's hands heartily and continuously."

The ultimate message that the mongrel stray carries for Thais is that, even though you may be born into poverty, you can rise to the top.