He was openly loved by his people.
In the autumn of 2016, my husband and I took a trip to South East Asia, which was a fantastic three weeks spent eating noodles and sweating profusely. Like, out of places I didn’t know existed.
However, despite our constant dehydration, we had the strange circumstance of arriving in Bangkok about one month after their king had died.
I want to start by saying that I have the utmost respect for the Thai population and their late king. However, I do admit that I am a culturally ignorant tourist who navigated a city in mourning. I wish to recount the deep veneration I witnessed, but apologize in advance if I accidentally offend.
For a quick Wikipedia induced background history, King Rama IX, Bhumibol Adulyadej, was the longest ruling monarch at the time of his death, having ascended the throne in 1946 and ruling for 70 years. He was openly loved by his people, who overall were shocked by his passing and then officially went into mourning.
Being a loud American, I didn’t think this would affect my sightseeing, and thus I monitored the situation sparingly via BBC. We arrived into Bangkok airport with some converted money and intense jet lag.
The first peculiarity we noticed were the billboards en route to our hotel. We were on Bangkok’s main highways from the airport to Khao San Road and found that every billboard was covered in black, with gracious notes to His Majesty. They would praise his humility, thank him for his service to the country, or give other brief notes of condolences. We must have passed by 30 of these on our car ride to the city.
We took a quick stroll around the area to grasp our surroundings, only to find that the shops only sold black clothes, and that every Thai was wearing all black. Some had specific shirts stating, “I was born in the reign of Rama IX.” We quickly learned to identify the number “9” in Thai, as vendors and tuk-tuk drivers wore it on their shirts or as brooches.
Tourist life kept humming, though, and you could still buy pants with elephant prints and plastic sunglasses on the side of the road. We quickly got the obligatory $5 hour long massages, ate Pad Thai, and had a few Tiger beers. The party scene that night seemed uninhibited by the recent occurrence. Australians letting loose, really.
The following day, we entered the Grand Palace at 8:30am sharp, to try to beat the crowds. However, there were Thai mourners swarming the palace regardless. A sea of black covered the park outside, and we tried to navigate despite not knowing where to go. Unfortunately, too, I wore an entirely pink ensemble, which made me stand out possibly in an offensive manner. If it means anything, I was completely covered down to my ankles, which is needed to enter such holy sites. I was just in the bethcy-est color an American could choose. Head. To. Toe.
We were ushered along grandmas in wheelchairs holding framed photos of the king, down this road, past that barricade, and over onto these lines. I was literally the white girl in pink. After 20 minutes of extreme embarrassment, and more sweating, an officer taps me on the shoulder to tell me what I already knew – I was in the wrong line.
We were pointed towards the main gate, where a few other tourists stood, not in black. Apparently, the mourners were to be on a long line to eventually see their king, who was interred in one of the buildings inside. I was unsure if we even could have been admitted, but I was not about to stand on a stagnant line for hours when I could explore the rest of the palace on my own.
Inside was gorgeous, and I wholeheartedly recommend this destination if one is in Bangkok. However, still, we were the only ones not dressed in black. And in the surrounding corridors were lines of Thai waiting to see their king. They would always wave and smile, as the sight of my large blond husband excited many a Southeast Asian during our trip.
Afterwards, we did the natural step to see Wat Pho, a massive reclining Buddha next to the Grand Palace, and also one the most recommended sites in the city. We were told to circumnavigate the palace grounds in order to arrive at the Buddha’s gate.
Again, we were naive about the massive crowds of mourners and found ourselves dodging Thais in black for the entire 15-minute walk. Moreover, we found various booths handing out free food and water to anyone coming to mourn the late king. It took us about 5 of these booths to realize that this food was not for us, but I did manage to score some water bottles and rice. Most were funded by local businesses or national banks to help give some comfort to anyone coming to pay their respects.
We also found beautiful murals attesting to the king’s countenance. He was a musician and an avid sailor.
Other than the constant reminder in framed photographs, and everyone wearing black, we could generally ignore the recent royal death and continue as tourists. I saw some Muy Thai and had a questionable experience in the red-light district. I think I did Bangkok well.