Thailand – A Nation In Mourning
Thailand’s king — the longest-serving monarch in the world — passed away last week at a hospital here in Bangkok. He’d been seriously ill for months, and his health was unsteady for years before that. His death, at age 88, was not a surprise.
But if you spend any time in Thailand, you come to understand that King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, wasn’t just a figurehead to his people. And although he’s been described as a near-deity, he wasn’t “just” that, either. They called him “father.” He was part of their families. Rich or poor, urban or rural, the king was beloved, revered, and widely seen as the man holding it all together in a nation that for much of his seven-decades-rule, sat perched on a razor’s edge of chaos.
And so the nation is now in deep mourning. Photographs from outside the hospital where he died showed people sobbing and wailing and near-fainting with grief. It seemed like the entire city lined the streets (crowd estimates are a bad idea) for the processional that returned his body to the royal family’s Grand Palace for what will be a long and elaborate series of funereal rites. The governing military junta — in power since a coup in May of 2014 — declared 30 days of mourning for the nation, and a full year of mourning for government officials. Black clothing started selling out all over Bangkok, and likely in other parts of the country as well.
Although the mood is certainly muted around this city, for the most part, business goes on as usual. Even last Friday, the day after the king’s death, malls were open, as were most restaurants. Some of my fellow expats had wondered if the entire city would simply shut down in midstream on Thursday night, when his passing was announced. But that didn’t happen. Yes, nightclubs shut down for a few days, as did some movie theaters, and Bangkok at this moment is not the rollicking, openly bonkers, loud party town of tourist lore. The party is happening behind closed doors for the time being.
But the only wet blanket over Bangkok is the humid air, and that’s the case no matter what’s happening in the news. The local populace seems saddened, but not dour. It is disorienting to walk around a town that is essentially painted black-and-white right now… its walls and alleyways filled with bunting and memorials, and its people bedecked in the most uncolorful clothing they own. But it’s also remarkable to witness so many people paying their respects in ways big and small, but in unison.
An enormous amount of political intrigue accompanies the king’s passing — both internally for Thailand, and globally for Thailand’s significant role in Southeast Asia and Asia as a whole, including as a trading partner with China. But I’m not an expert on Thai politics or history, having only lived here the last five months, and I also must avoid running afoul in any way, shape or form, of Thailand’s severe lèse majesté laws restricting speech about the royal family. What I can write about is what I observe, and today, on the fifth day of official mourning, I made my way to the Grand Palace, with the intention to sign my name in a condolence guestbook that’s been provided for anyone who wants to do so, as long as they’re willing to stand in what turned out to be a blocks-long line under tents in the hot sun.
Instead, I mingled and got a sense of how at least this part of the country is dealing with such a momentous development. I saw tears, but mostly I saw… celebration is the wrong word, but certainly a mood that was more upbeat than somber. Through the language barrier, people smiled and expressed pride in their king, telling me, when I would stop to take a photograph, “Our king! We love.” There was free water, cold soda, and food, but no music. Commerce does not observe mourning periods, and so all manner of the king’s likeness stood on offer around the palace grounds, from jewelry to portraiture.
The main roads around the Grand Palace, normally choked with motorbike taxis and tuk tuks, were blocked off, creating an eerie sense of emptiness, especially coupled with the muffled conversations of those walking to the palace grounds.
As I crossed one of the streets, police blew their whistles and people scurried to one side or the other, and everyone started sitting down. I didn’t know what was going on, and the woman next to me took me by the elbow and motioned to me to sit, take off my sunglasses, and she said “No photo!” She looked me in the eye and repeated herself — “No photo!” I put my camera away and waited until a short caravan went by, with one car carrying a woman waving to the crowd from behind a rolled-up window. Several of those around me held their palms pressed together and made a small bow toward her in what’s called a “wai” — the traditional Thai greeting and sign of great respect. Once the cars had passed, the kind woman next to me smiled and said “Princess,” while a military policeman not three yards away confiscated a cellphone and swiped through it for suspected photos of the caravan.
I didn’t make it to the guestbook, but there’s still plenty of time to do so… for the next 25 days, if not beyond. At dinner the other night, I told an expat friend that it’s near-impossible for us to imagine how and why Thais are grieving so deeply right now. In the West, with the possible exception of Queen Elizabeth II, we have no equivalent leader who has been in the public eye as long, and become as beloved, nay worshipped, as King Bhumibol Adulyadej. I shook my head at my own lack of understanding, but the country’s mourning is worthy of intense and profound respect. There is sadness, yes, but Thais are also figuring out how to find joy in the king’s memory, and to celebrate a life that transformed a nation.